A big man dancing, or I get by with a little help from my friends
[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.
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
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.
Anyway, thanks for being here.