We’ve had a range of reviews from our recent performance of Break Up [We Need to Talk] in Auckland- I’ll link to them below. I want to write here about some things I’ve discovered through performing it again. It’ll be a bit wafty perhaps.
Break Up is a six hour improvised conversation based on strict rules. One person sits in the front and plays one person, four people sit at the back and play the other person, taking turns to speak whenever interrupted by the front person. Front and back can change over, but the characters stay distinct.
The first time we did it we didn’t really think about character very much, the focus was really to see if we could get through it. This time we set the goal of trying to remember the information that came out in conversation more diligently, and to work harder to work with it, to keep the characters distinct and coherent. It felt a bit funny to me for us to be talking about character at all in rehearsal, since as a company we’ve defined ourselves in part by the fact that we don’t play characters in a traditional theatre-y way. Not exactly a unique mission, but still- the last thing I wanted was for us all to go onstage and pretend to be someone else.
Basically we decided that the approach to character would be that details and attitudes would accumulate during the show and we would remember them as best we could, and try not to say anything that obviously contradicted facts that had been established. Obviously over six hours this is hard, maybe impossible. Beyond that, we could be ourselves, more or less, and the characters would take care of themselves.
I’ve been thinking about some of my very oldest friends and how to this day I cannot predict what movies they will like and what ones they will violently hate. I’m taken aback again and again- you mean you like Birdman and hated Boyhood? How? It’s even like this with my family. We are all walking bags of apparent contradictions, with unstable opinions and constantly shifting perspectives. We are very ready to accept this of each other in the real world. Yesterday you were non smoker, now you are a smoker. When we started talking you hated this sculpture, now you are not so sure. This is not some mistake you have made. This week I’ve watched Wolf Hall, Bob’s Burgers, Wake Up Tomorrow, and listened to (a lot of) Taylor Swift, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Aesop Rock, and Radiolab. My opinion of each has shifted around a lot. Does this sound like a consistent character to you?
So I was at Basement with everyone doing this show and thinking about how we’re creating character by doing, speech as action, speech as bricklaying, building this unplanned structure- or maybe we weren't creating characters at all, just a list of things we know about the character, or know about what the character thinks they know about themselves, or thinks they know about the other character, or just lies to get by, at each moment. The point is that, even more so than usual, there is no possible place where the person “is” at all, no centre to anything since its all shared five ways, and with the audience. But then, characters created by one person in one brain have no centre either, just a network of connections made though the action of firing synapses (or whatever it is that brains do).
To me then, this feels like as "realistic" a way to create a character as any, and as useful a way to think about the self as any- a cloud of thoughts and actions which I have at some point thought or taken, none of which define me. It certainly felt pretty real to me, being in it on stage. Who's to say it wasn't? We’re chumps if we think we’ve got anyone sussed out.
Dione Joseph, Matt Baker, Nathan Joe, and Hamish Parkinson have written reviews of the show, with really interesting observations that we'll be thinking about before heading to New York. Joe and Parkinson's are very positive, Joseph's is more neutral, and Joe's is pretty critical. Great to have so much considered feedback, thanks to them all.
Radiolab got to the heart of what I've been trying to unpick about Birdman and maybe also Wolf Hall in the last few posts, in their new episode about pro wrestling. They talk lot about real and staged in wrestling, about how fans enjoy trying to distinguish between the two, watching for the unguarded moments. Wrestlers have a script and they usually follow it, but not always, and not in every moment. What they say about this on the show kind of sums it all up for me:
"what makes wrestling so powerful is the never-ending search for the reality within the unreal. The fact that we get to blend these things together"
"I just think there's a part of the human brain that wants to be confused between those boundaries, that wants to be slipping between what's real, what's fake, to feel that confusion."
I think this second idea sums up a lot of what draws me to the live art I like. For example, in Forced Entertainment's Quizoola you're doing the same thing, watching for truth to come through the cracks in the game.The incredible Wake Up Tomorrow at Circa was like this too- I was always asking myself "is this part of the plan?" When we watch stand-up we're looking for the truly off-the-cuff stuff that is really just happening for us, and we love it when we think we see it. In Birdman, there was the idea that maybe in the stark light of the long takes you'd see beyond the character of Riggan Thomson and glimpse Keaton. It's nice to think that this way of watching is not just some "high art" appeal to theatre wankers, but something that we all enjoy.
I enjoyed going on Angela Kilford's Reclamation Walk as part of the Performance Arcade last week. The walk was a guided tour which traced the old waterfront from Pipitea marae down to the old Te Aro pā site. It made me realise how very little I really know about the history of the city I've lived in for the past 8 years or so, when it comes down to it. I didn't, for example, know that the bus station is around where waka used to be pulled up onto the beach- as Angela said, there's a nice visual parallel there. It was a fun imaginative exercise to walk Lambton Quay and imagine it as waterfront again, and to remember all the rivers and streams that lie buried under the city. As I tell visitors to Wellington, if the land is flat, we made it up. I was reminded by the range of stories in the tour, from various points in time, of Teju Cole's novel Open City. In that book, the narrator spends a lot of time wandering in New York and exploring the city as a constantly rewritten text, layers and layers of history co-existing or erasing each other. Angela's information was interesting, but the unexpected thing about the tour was how the in-between parts, the walking parts, became chances for locals on the tour to share their own stories and favourite places in the city, and for us to get to know each other. A chance to share memories of places as we stood in them.
The other thing that has stuck with me is Kirsten Lavers' Admitting the Possibilities of Error. It was the kind of simple and immediately graspable concept that works so well in the arcade- the artist drew a huge circle and then tried to replicate it in concentric inner circles, by hand, one by one. This led of course to error and slow correction. It played to another strength of the arcade by providing an opening for conversation and contemplation with the artist while she worked, in a direct and genuine way, without obligation. Each circle was made with a different pen provided by the public, and their names added around the edge. We were encouraged to think about mistakes, and especially the ones we don't regret. The finished piece is being silently auctioned for the arcade here.
There was also a stormtrooper who gave counselling, which sounds like it was great and I'm sad I missed it. Great music too, and lots of stuff I didn't have time to investigate properly. I like the way the arcade makes artists come to the public rather than making them go to the artists. Like Sam said in his opening speech, it's a gift, made better by the fact we can take it or leave it as we please.
Wasn't sure about whether I'd like the new BBC Wolf Hall series, but I think its dazzling. The trailer made it look like a costume drama in the wrong way, since they had to use all the most dramatic lines and confrontations- the books are slow and truthful and human. What's great about both the series and the books is the way they seem immediate and not historical.
The actors talk without that awful universal period-drama accent, for a start, which really helps. It's like with Shakespeare- Tudor accents would have been strange and unintelligible to us anyway, so the voices are always going to be in translation to some degree. You may as well use patterns that ring true. They could just as easily all have been New Yorkers. I appreciate the colloquial language (down to the way the titles casually tell you that "it's 1535") in service of relatability.
Costume is another thing that's crucial- when actors look like they're inhabiting their clothes, when they look built to be worn around. Somehow the show makes Tudor clothes look fashionable, when usually they look only like costumes, doing the rounds between different shows and films (apparently in Jane Austin adaptations the same dresses pop up again and again).
Often too, the scenes appear to be lit by candles or natural light. This works to bind actor, costume and set together, kind of like a varnish or paint job, stopping you from seeing the actor on the set, the props on the table, as different things. This seems to be the hardest thing to make us believe- that the person actually belongs where they're standing.
It's tough though, because in order for it to be really authentic they have to shoot on real historical lawns and in real rooms, and (I'm thinking about the Birdman phenomena stuff still) these resist the fiction pretty stubbornly- the characters always seem somehow superimposed onto the locations in some way, like Snow White onto a Disney matte painting. It's not anything you can fix through light or costume. I can't help but admire the authenticity of the set, which means knowing that it exists on another layer to the action. Cathedrals are the worst for this, I keep expecting to see tourists.
In Shakespeare's theatre costume was the most important element, and there were no real sets. I wonder what a drama like this would be like playing on a completely bare set? If we saw an actually new Tudor building, would it look fake, too clean? I enjoy the arguments that spring up online about the conflict between what is truthful and what we accept as real on screen- the codpieces apparently are too small, but if they were bigger we'd think they looked weird. Also: are their teeth too good? Apparently not, since this was before the industrial revolution ruined us all. But even so, we see their teeth and think "historical teeth should be dirty, I'll suspend my tooth disbelief". I'm just thankful we don't have to smell them all.
Another funny intersection - Cromwell, in the show, posing for a Holbein portrait which still exists. Him holding still, chatting, being called away to other business. The show imagining outward from what we think we know, boldly and pretty cheekily encouraging us to believe that we can witness history. It's a pretty high stakes bet and it does pay off.
I’ve been thinking about the bit near the end of Birdman where Michael Keaton/ Riggan Thomson (spoiler sort of but not really) is standing on the edge of a building in New York, deciding whether or not to jump off. A woman on another roof calls out, “is this real or is this a movie?” Keaton/Thompson sort of fliches and tosses her the word “movie” before focussing again on the drop. On the internet I saw some trivia which said that this was an unscripted moment, the woman just a random New Yorker who called out, and Keaton (not Thomson) responded. This made the moment make sense to me, a perfect accident thrown into the finished film. Then I saw on imdb that that this woman was played by someone called Jackie Hoffman. Scripted. So it was Thomson, not Keaton, who responded? But he says "movie" as if it were not scripted, letting the two truths, the fiction of the story and the act of making the film, bleed into each other. Lots of the movie was like this, playing games with the real world and the world of representation- the difference between them or the lack of it. It was the best piece of theatre I’ve seen in a while, theatrical in that the long takes drew attention to performance and the potential for misteps, mistakes, things we edit from film but can’t remove from the performance of life. Long takes create liveness and encourage scrutiny, moments are more real since they are embedded in a stretch of time. The note on his mirror at the start, saying “the thing is the thing and not what I think about the thing”, or something like that- playing throughout with the idea of phenomena (things too new for old labels), characters trying desperately to break through to somewhere that they can actually be seen as real and be noticed in their own right. Emma Stone’s rant about the way we are all competing for attention in the digital world, trying to cut through the noise, Keaton/Thomson’s final act on stage being the ultimate desperate version of that (and it wouldn't work twice). Tricks and games with the real and staged, like the one on the roof- the run through Times Square of course all full of hired extras and carefully choreographed, made to look like they just put Keaton out there and roamed with him, like it happened… the slurring shift from scripted performance to something else when Edward Norton throws his drink on stage in the dress rehearsal and destroys the set. Edward Norton transmutating the shit script into dramatic gold, something true, before your eyes, too easily to be comfortable, then making things too real when he assaults his wife in the bed on stage. Keaton revealing the shocking truth about his father, but it's not even true in the scene. The whole movie always clawing away at the moment, all the time, trying to make it into something real. Theatre theorist Burt O States (and Matt Wagner who used to teach us at Vic) says that you can’t have animals, running water, or children on stage because they refuse the fiction, they are phenomena which can't be tamed. Add to that drunken actors. Add to that drummers, who appear halfway through a drum solo, lurching from the soundtrack, outside the picture, into the moment. Add to that city streets and traffic. Add to that movie stars, who stick out like lions in zebra cages in all movies, except in this one, where Keaton is Keaton more than he is Thomson, and so we get that flipping of perception like we should in Shakespeare: Boy actor plays girls playing boy playing girl, king plays beggar plays king... Keaton plays Thomson plays the husband in the play… and we flick around between them. Theatre, and great theatre, but also exhilarating film.
K showed me this incredibly committed bit of nonsense discussion on reddit:
Are there a lot spiders in NZ, compared to the US?
There are quite a few but during the summer months when they're breeding you're allowed to catch the adults if they're more than 12cm (five inches) wide.
In my experience it's best to warn tourists before they eat a dish with them in it because some people can be fussy when it comes to what they're used to eating. TBH it's mainly older people who have them, younger people would rather have McDonalds or something.
The whole amazing thing, recipes and all, is here.
Also, if you haven't been to Liartown recently, it's still mindblowingly good (and probably not safe for work). This is what Photoshop is for.
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