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Solo

[A short piece made and performed on Sunday 28 September at Transmute in the Brighton Digital Festival]

01five

This is a collage of material from Solo Two, a show I was performing on Tuesday Friday and Saturday last week. Together with some other thoughts provoked during the week. A bit like a 7 inch remix, put together today on the rail replacement bus to Brighton.

Solo Two started with an introduction. As does this. So I’d invite you to get into groups of 6 and introduce yourselves to each other. And then see if you can find the most interesting thing that all of you in your group of 6 have in common.

[they discuss and then their commonalities shared to the room]

02emptychairs

So in Solo Two, all the audience is seated on chairs scattered around the room. And all the words I speak are printed on sheets, and dealt to the audience who give them back to me. It’s a piece made up of small pieces which the audience connect up for themselves. Here’s one of those small pieces.

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Here we all are gathered in a room.

How many of us are there? I’m going to do a head count.

Take a look around while I do. And perhaps say hello with your eyes to the other people here.

I make it N people.

It’s a little miracle. This gathering of all of us and only us together in a room. The chance is practically zero that all of us and only us will be gathered again in a room before the end of the world, whenever that might be.

I’ve an empty chair here. There’s a Jewish tradition of leaving a chair empty at the feast, for someone who is not there but you wish that they were.

So we can do this too. If you like, and no worries if you’d rather not, please take out your phone. Open up your phonebook of contacts. Start scrolling through the names. If you don’t have a phone, you can imagine an address book and start leafing through that. And perhaps surprise yourself in picking someone who is dear to you but who hasn’t been in your mind for a little while.

When you’ve chosen someone, imagine them sitting here in this chair. And just let your mind dream out of this room towards whichever room you imagine this person sitting in the chair might actually be.

And whenever you see this chair, you can imagine your friend sitting here.

03einvolksfeind

So on Thursday I went to see An Enemy Of The People at the Barbican. It’s the Ibsen play repurposed by German director Thomas Ostermeier and his team. ‘Enemy Of The People’ translates as Volksfeind in German.

In the original play, Dr Stockmann is the Enemy Of The People. He’s discovered that the water in the town’s spa baths has been poisoned by waste from a factory. But these baths give the town its wealth, and there are too many individuals with vested interest to let this simple truth be told. But Stockmann refuses to shut up. And he calls a meeting in which he addresses the whole town. He’s the individual speaking up against the majority. And he goes very far indeed.

In Ostermeier’s production, we the audience play the town.

We’re addressed by Stockmann. And he goes much further than we expect, not just talking about the poisoned water but a poison he perceives in the minds of everyone in the town.

And Ostermeier puts into Stockmann’s mouth some words from the manifesto The Coming Insurrection, written in 2007 by a radical group The Invisible Committee. The poison in our minds is the creed of individualism. Expressed in an advertising slogan – I AM WHAT I AM

I AM WHAT I AM. My body belongs to me. I am me, you are you, and it’s not going too well. Mass personalization. Individualization of all conditions – of life, work, misery.

I AM WHAT I AM is not just a simple lie, a simple advertising campaign, but a military campaign, a war-cry directed against everything there is between people, against everything that circulates indistinctly, everything that ties them invisibly together, everything that puts an obstacle in the way of perfect desolation, against everything that makes it so we exist and the world doesn’t just look like one big highway everywhere, an amusement park or one of the new cities: pure boredom; passionless, but well-ordered; empty, frozen space where nothing moves besides the duly registered bodies, the automobile molecules and the ideal commodities.

Before cutting back into Ibsen.

The majority never has right on its side. Never, I say! That is one of these social lies against which an independent, intelligent man must wage war. Who is it that constitutes the majority of the population in a country? Is it the clever folk, or the stupid?

And when the discussion is opened up to the floor, for us the audience to make our voice heard, it’s true that we don’t do very well. We’ve been set up to fail. We’re too many voices, we haven’t been scripted, we only have the slogans and clichés and truisms and gags that spring to mind when we’re a crowd straining to make ourselves heard.

A friend of mine criticized Ostermeier for being politically confused. Stockmann is speaking for the individual against the majority, so how can the poison of the majority he rails against be individualism?

But I think Ostermeier was spot on in this juxtaposition.

We’re in an era where a majority is created through a market of individual self-interests, where we are encouraged to speak and vote and purchase on behalf of our own personal freedom, and assured that other people will look after themselves. We’re billions of atomised individuals scrunched up to make a majority, a crowd puppeteered by globalised systems of capital and control. And trying to break step by yourself isn’t impossible, it’s irrelevant.

Back to The Coming Insurrection.

It’s dizzying to see Reebok’s “I AM WHAT I AM” enthroned atop a Shanghai skyscraper. The West is advancing everywhere, with its favorite Trojan horse: the murderous opposition between the “I” and the world, the individual and the group, between attachment and freedom.

Freedom isn’t the gesture of liberation from attachments, but the practical capacity to operate upon them, to move around in them, to establish or cut them off. The freedom to tear oneself out has always been the mere phantom of liberty. We won’t get free of what’s holding us back without losing at the same time that which our strength could be exercised on.

04veronicafriends

Back to Solo Two. For part of it, I was telling the story of someone called Veronica. Someone who is very much herself (although she can’t help but reflect a little bit of her author). One of Veronica’s peculiarities is the way she thinks about friends. Here’s the bit of her story about that.

They say that the Eskimos have 50 words for snow, and that the words don’t just help reflect how they see the white world around them but also shape the way they see it. It always puzzles Veronica then that there are so few words for relationships – if not family then usually fluttering around friend or pal or chum which all mean the same, then flitting towards the bunch of words hanging around lovers. But friends are all different, ones you watch football with, ones you walk home with, the one you call to shout at whenever you have something to shout about – so why do you use much the same word?

Veronica makes new words for all her relationships. You’re my Betty, she says to another girl at school, which puzzles the girl at first because her name is Julie but then pleases her because she thinks Veronica is saying she’s her bestie. But she’s not. She means that the relationship she cherishes with Julie makes her uniquely her Betty. If you asked her what she meant, she’d shrug and say, y’know a Betty.

Sometimes the words are born inside of her. A boy called Ola who has a crush on Veronica aged 15 is disheartened and bewildered when she announces that he is her Puddenglimp. Dan is The Whiskery Cardinal, Jackson her Gingery Tom, while Emily Frost is confusingly her Emily, but this cannot be said of her relationships with Emily Dixon, Emily Frankland, or Emily Goode – who are respectively Huggy, The Solveig, and My Imaginator.

05monkey

Today I was remembering the TV show Monkey. Or Mon-kayyyyy!

It’s something I loved when I was a kid. A Japanese TV show based on the Chinese novel Journey to the West, filled with chopsocky action and delicious over-acting.

Monkey and friends were on a never-ending quest for Buddha.

Not so much a superhero team as a motley gang of friends.

06fivefriends

But they all had superpowers for me.

Monkey is someone who reminded me to be brave.

Tripitaka is someone who reminded me to take good care.

Pigsy is someone who made me laugh.

Sandy is someone who reminded me to think clearly.

Horse is someone who might carry me if I needed carrying.

So, you can probably see where this is going…

Remember your friend who’s sitting here.

I wonder if they were one of Monkey’s gang for you, which one would they be?

Monkey? Tripitaka? Pigsy? Sandy? Or Horse?

Just like Veronica called her friend her Betty, which of these five names might you choose to describe your friend sitting here?

Monkey, Tripitaka, Pigsy, Sandy, or Horse?

For the reasons I suggested, or for your own reasons?

And now, here are 4 more empty chairs. Perhaps you can fill more of these.

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If you take out your phone again, I wonder if you might scroll through and find any more friends to dub with any of the remaining titles? Can you even edit their contact details so you add Monkey Tripitaka Pigsy Sandy or Horse to their names?

You can do this by yourself or rejoin your group or other friends and tell them about the friends you’re choosing and why.

Finally. This is only the beginning.

This is a number for you. If you like, text HELLO.

And over the coming days you’ll receive a series of text messages, each with a small challenge you might choose to take.

You can stop at any time. But I hope that you will continue. Wherever this goes.

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ACT 1

During Act 1, people are invited to tweet the view of wherever they are in that moment. These are read out at intervals to everyone in the room.

MONDAY 22

@kieranlucas

ByJ7bt_IMAAAS_t

@thederminator Soundtrack to my view – new Aphex Twin: http://grooveshark.com/#!/album/Syro/9847481 … #solotwo – live from Brum…

@thederminator My view

ByJ_ERdIgAAlDzx

@ADatMill Front room, hidden beer

ByKEF7_IYAAB_v2

@georgiecannon My view: @glyncannon at rest…

ByKBi9VIcAED2Eo

@patrickashe A hot and sweaty victoria line carriage heading to Brixton, a man practicing his handwritten lines.

@dandysocpic

@jasonjcrouch This is what I can see now

ByJ5cTiIIAAcRXj (1)

TUESDAY 23

@fionamcgeown plum pie

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@katecraddock right now snug on a sofa and breast feeding my beautiful baby boy

ByPRUk_IEAAi_1U

@alhimself Provo, Utah. Mormons and Mountains. No booze. No caffeine. How to sleep/wake?

ByPOZ5yCUAAvS3f

@iamfinlay Amongst actors preparing for the first preview of David Hare’s The Vertical Hour.

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@followellie In a cosy Bristol sitting room, digitally connected to @battersea_arts

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@BPMonkey Looking out over a wild and wet west yorkshire. The first day of autumn…

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@BPMonkey …only half an hour ago I was toasting marshmellows around a fire.

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@afreenaazaria My view

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@Fergus_Evans still at work and wishing I was at the theatre with you!

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FRIDAY 26

@hannahsibai Back in Leeds and avec curry

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@KelseaWoods an American coffee shop… all the way down in Columbia, South Carolina

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@peckhamshell in a dark room settling the kids

@shiponhighseas sitting in one corner of bed. Cupboard is slightly open with a table lamp switched on inside.

@alexrowse on a crowded, sweaty train leaving London. Have a seat.

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@moongolfer I’m on a 432 to Crystal Palace top deck. man in front of me has nice tartan hoodie

@ammonite a messy study in fading light. Need to switch the light on.

@davidfinig out the window of a housing estate in battersea, 15 mins down the hill from all you charming ppl right now.

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SATURDAY 27

@hannahnicklin

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@judecchristian – Inching through Piccadilly. Night, breeze, quietly chatting strangers all around (serenity, London-style).

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@matttrueman

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@wilhelminapitfa NYC subway. Floor view. Now.

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@shysecretagent Lisbon, hotel Alif, my room.

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@gregwohead Beverly Hills, Los Angeles. Walking towards lunch.

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@TobyPeach watching the football over someone’s shoulder

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@StewartLegere driving to the airport

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@jasonjcrouch

Byjy8F7IQAA_mTF

@alexrowse tonight, Tassos, I’m watching my aunt cook all my favourite Malaysian food.

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@BPMonkey The view from the tech gallery. I mean of course where I am now, not at #solotwo 🙂

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@iamfinlay

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ACT 2

During Act 2, the audience in the room at Battersea talk amongst themselves answering a set of questions. Audience online on Facebook talk amongst themselves answering the same questions. Some answers are shared between the theatre and online.

Here are the audience in Battersea smiling and waving to the online audience.

MONDAY 22: to Iain in Bradford, Laura in Birmingham, Phoebe in Canterbury, Hilary in Dublin.

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TUESDAY 23: to Ivan in Bradford, Astrid in Bristol, Dee in Dublin, Ellie in Bristol, Ramona in Bradford, Kate in Newcastle, Sophie in Dublin.

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FRIDAY 26: to Ellie in Leeds, Hannah in Leeds.

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SATURDAY 27: to Jamie and friends in Newcastle.

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I return to playing Solo Two this week at Battersea Arts Centre (thank you, Shelley Hastings). This will be the 4th stretch of time I’ve spent on it, and the first outside Theatre in the Mill where I developed it from March 2013. It feels like it might be very close to finished.

solotwodance
[Me and Dan, reflected in a dance studio]

I spent a brilliant day in Bristol a month ago with Dan Canham working through the dancing again from first principles and properly nailing it dramaturgically (I hope) – he gave me one of my favourite notes “I don’t believe you’re really out of breath”, looking exactly like this as he did. But it’s a very new format for the dancing, and I’m even more nervous than usual to do it for an audience because it’s clearly the big selling point down here in London.

There was one more piece of writing to be done, inspired by remembering a small child dancing in a shop in Dalston, and one removed to balance it up. The text has now otherwise entered the stage of tweaking and polishing. Although the format dictates I’ll have the script in my hand, I’m trying to learn it as best I can, and wondering if it’s going to find room inside my brain what with Jimmy Stewart still haunting my hippocampus.

Tomorrow I’ve got the day with the marvellous Kieran Lucas, who is taking over the seat hotted up by Ivan Mack in Bradford and operating the lights according to a brief Ivan has drawn up, more like the rules of a game and instructions to download photographs of zen gardens.

I have the usual anxieties but remembering that my very favourite element of the whole night is the kind of interaction I try to facilitate with the audience. I described it earlier as hoping to be like an augmented version of the kind of interaction you’ll have with other people in an audience when you have a good night at the theatre. It was driven by a brilliant direction Maddy Costa gave me when I was fishing for provocations to take into the room: see if you can get the audience to remember each other as much as they remember you. This is an audience both present in the room with me, but also in other rooms all over the world, wherever they are, connected very simply online.

Which is where you come in, wherever you are. There are two ways to take a small (but meaningful, I reckon) part online.

You can take part in Act 1 via Twitter by following either @tassosstevens or @solotwotheatre for live instructions from the start of Act 1 that night.

You can take part in Act 2 via Facebook by liking a post I’ll make on the page www.facebook.com/solotwo (and friending me if we’re not already) then be alert for a message from me at the start of Act 2.

I’m doing an open dress rehearsal on Mon 22 and then three public performances on Tue 23, Fri 26, and Sat 27 from 7pm – for which you can book tickets HERE.

Mon 22
Act 1 from soon after 6.30pm, Act 2 from roughly 7.45pm.

Tue 23, Fri 26, Sat 27
Act 1 from soon after 7.00pm, Act 2 from roughly 8.15pm.

[all times are UK local time]

Thanks for being here.

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[I was asked by Theatre in the Mill to write something for their blog about the process of making Solo Two]

Solo Two is my second solo theatre piece. The first wasn’t called Solo One, but the very long title of Jimmy Stewart, An Anthropologist From Mars, Analyses Love And Happiness In Humans (And Rabbits). Jimmy Stewart… as it’s usually abbreviated was not something I set out to make. It was born in a storm, and washed to shore the next morning as a title on top of a blank sheet of paper. It then wrote itself, guided by a series of conversations with my good friend the sound artist Nick Ryan. Somehow it didn’t feel like I had much to do with it.

Solo Two came about entirely differently. I really thought about it. I looked back through my emails to find the one I sent to Iain Bloomfield, the gaffer at Theatre in the Mill in Bradford, who’d seen Jimmy Stewart… 6 months previous and said some kind words. Here’s what I sent him. I had never spoken to him previously bar three words in Leeds: thanks for coming.

It’s quite a different kind of genesis. Perhaps the second piece (like the album) is always harder. This time, no such catalyst but a desire to continue playing in this vein, and a circling flock of fragments of ideas. I’m pretty sure it will be about interconnectedness with friends and strangers, the transient and seemingly inconsequential interactions that make up a life. I want to take the performance situation, the gathering of mostly strangers that is the audience in the room with me – a group that are together for this transient moment – as a model and see how it resonates. I’ve got… the story of Joybubbles (google him and the Radiolab episode by which I first heard his story); some social psychology including group theory and the Dunbar number; blasts and counterblasts around Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together; the moment at the end of a recent Godspeed! gig where the feedback from the instruments left on the empty stage seemed to open the roof; a feeling I had a few months ago sitting in a room with an Indonesian student in Launceston in Tasmania, telling him a story and marvelling at what had happened to bring us both together there; This Is Water by David Foster Wallace.

Iain ended up offering me a week’s development residency, and then another week’s development, and now finally this coming week where I’m finishing off the development. It’s been astoundingly generous support.

Also props to my good friend Kate Genevieve, who curated a cabaret in Brighton on the night the Mayans said the world was gong to end, and offered me a slot to try out some ideas. I wrote three short stories on the train down to Brighton (one about Launceston, one about Joybubbles, one about the Dunbar Number) and did those as The Ends Of The World. For the first week in Bradford, I therefore called this piece After The Ends Of The World.

Jimmy Stewart… is me telling a story to the people who happen to be in the room with me: just that (as well as a lot more than that). In this next piece, I wanted to hang onto it being me talking to the people in the room, telling stories, but I didn’t want it to be Jimmy 2. I’d run a workshop at the Young Vic about making solo work with a brilliant group of young directors, and together with them written a manifesto for Jimmy Stewart, what it was, what it was about, what was important. That was a jumping-off point to find the differences. I had the word ‘tornadic’ bouncing round my brain, the word David Foster Wallace used to describe his book The Pale King. Jimmy was very linear, how could this be a bit more loopy but still satisfying? And when I’d first done Jimmy I was truly terrified that it would be shit, that I would be shit, all would be embarrassment. I’d grown out of that but I still wanted a bit of fear. Somehow, I really don’t remember how, the thought came – you should try dancing.

Back to that in a sec. But the other fear I had was I really had no idea, other than sitting down and writing, how I would make a show by myself solo in a room. So I didn’t. I asked every friend I bumped into over the few days before I started in Bradford – this is what I think this piece might be about, would you give me a short provocation that I can take into the room with me? There were a good few, but a few that I remember without looking… Pete Cant told me to kill and eat a chicken, which I ignored – but he’d also said that Jimmy was a straight story (it was) and he wanted something queerer; you should see me dancing. Susanna Davies-Crook told me to find an animal to be in the room and be that animal for at least 5 minutes; I do this while the audience talk amongst themselves about dogs and cats, and you can guess which of those I might be. Tom Frankland told me to find a way to model Twitter or Facebook; I went a stage further and use those platforms in the performance to connect people remotely wherever they are into different parts of the performance – look to the end of this to see how you can do this too if you like. And Maddy Costa gave me the killer provocation; have it so the audience are likely to remember each other as much as they remember you; a small spoiler but act 2 takes place in the bar, just the audience by themselves, and it really makes the show.

So this is how you make a piece solo. You don’t. You take the wisdom of your good friends with you. Or you invite people in. The first week I picked up Ivan Mack, who happens to be the resident technician at the Mill but is a brilliant lighting designer and all-round brain. And for the dancing. I’d had a fantastic primer session in London with the dancer-choreographer Flora Wellesley-Wesley which really opened up my thinking. But also I took a lesson in Bradford over the phone from my good friend in Bristol Dan Canham

Dan I’d met because I’d seen his piece 30 Cecil Street, and it had bowled me over so much that I asked him out on a professional date… we spent a day in London walking and talking. From that, I asked him to co-direct with me for Coney The Adventure Principle with Contact and its youth theatre. And then RSVP with Dublin Youth Theatre the following year. In the meantime, he curated a week for Forest Fringe at The Gate and asked me to do Jimmy one night in a double-bill with Cecil Street; we then repeated that double-bill in Dublin. We’re working on something else together. We tune into each other really well.

Dan came up for a couple of days in the second stage of development and together with Ivan, threw a curveball by suggesting we clear the space and then fill it with chairs and lightbulbs. This became the environment of Act 1 of the performance for the audience and me.

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And the dancing then becomes more than just the understandable delight that an audience has in watching a big man like me dance, aka me doing the thing I’m scared of. It’s the only way to navigate the space, to make the connections between people, to play the tornado.

I spent last Friday afternoon with Dan in a studio at BAC (thanks to them) working more on the qualities and principles behind the dancing. These are the provocations he sent me since, which I’m taking into this week:

  • moving as slowly as possible without stopping your centre
  • dancing as someone else as a way to remember them
  • dancing as if with someone else as a way to remember them
  • 100% on the inside, 30% outside
  • earning the “right” to dance – it coming from somewhere whereby only dance/movement will do – the sense that you’re moved by something
  • sometimes the music conjures you, sometime you conjure the music

Here’s Dan.

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So you’re here having read all of this. Thank you. If you can make it to the Mill this week either Wednesday or Thursday, then I can promise you a tornado of stories about friendship and connection, a friend of yours magicked into the room (for real), and some friendly conversation. As well as a big man dancing.

If you can’t make Bradford but you want to be present remote, then you can follow some instructions here on twitter or here on facebook or both. You might end up having a conversation with strangers.

Anyway, thanks for being here.

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