Sunday, 8 May 2011

Just what exactly do I think I'm doing?!

So, that was a taster of the first ‘proper’ day of work and rehearsal on the project. But what exactly does that mean – ‘proper’? In this context: a series of experimental performances – surely there’s no such thing as proper? Surely there’s no right way of going about things and any methods that I might have used in the past to work on projects are null and void?

I’ve been grappling with this question a lot over the last week or so. The day of the Royal Wedding was the first day back at work after I’d been discharged from hospital after a five day stay. I was finally diagnosed with a condition called acute sarcoidosis. In a nutshell what this amounts to is that my body, for no apparent reason (or certainly not anything I could have prevented) has decided that it needs to seriously ramp up its immune response – so strongly in fact that it has begun to attack itself. It’s an incredibly rare condition that affects about one person in every 10,000 which explains why it took five days for it to be diagnosed. In fact, my time in hospital was rather like being the subject at the centre of an episode of ‘House’ – perplexed consultants and medical students looking at me and scratching their heads and developing theories and sending me for chest x-rays etc. When it was finally diagnosed there was much jubilation and I was regularly visited by med students who had been told to come and have a look at me since the condition is so rare that it would be worthwhile them checking it out!

The prognosis is very good, I’m delighted to say. In most cases, acute sarcoidosis simply ‘burns itself out’ over a period that could last from a few weeks up to 18 months and, once it has gone, the likelihood of relapse is small. There is a tiny chance that it could become chronic but, hey, let’s cross that bridge only if we have to.

Throughout my time in hospital however, there was a constant thought in my mind wondering whether I should postpone or cancel the OEM experiments. After all, if I really was seriously ill, it wouldn’t necessarily be wise to undergo a series of gruelling performance experiments over 6 weeks with two offerings a night. But, in typical bloody minded fashion, I was determined to continue ... and I still really had no idea of how major the illness was ...

So, Gareth and I continued to meet and ‘rehearse’, doing practical, tangible things to prepare for these totally unprepared experiments. We met up at Volcano’s new space in Swansea and spent a day improvising wildly about things – the deaths of Osama Bin Laden and Henry Cooper; my feelings and irritations and loves. We met for a day in Cardiff and took to the streets, armed with clipboards, asking people simply how their day was going. We chugged a chugger – demanding to know if her job brought her happiness and made her feel like her life is worthwhile. We stood outside the Job Centre and got into conversation with total strangers about whatever they needed to talk about. All of this was, and is, extremely useful work in relation to the experiments themselves – especially in regard to helping me get over my fear of talking to people. But for every day we worked, my body repaid me with two days of pain and swelling and agony. So much so that, last Friday, I had to go back into hospital as I’d had an attack overnight that was so severe that I could again no longer walk.

These two things – the illness and the desperate need to feel properly prepared – have forced me to face up to a fascinating issue with regard to these experiments. If my theory is correct – that it is possible to make a piece of theatre simply by dint of being human, alive and in a room with other humans who have lived through the same day as me – then how can I possibly prepare for that in any traditional way that I recognise? And, more importantly with regard to the issue of my health, should I even try?

The limitations of my illness have suggested that what I need to do to prepare is not do any of the things I would normally rely on. The very nature of theatrical performance is based on rehearsal and preparation. A clearly defined end goal – a script, a set, a lighting design, a character, a narrative. All of these elements are missing from the One Eyed Man Project. All I have is myself, my life and experiences, the day I have just lived through and the group of people who have decided, for whatever reason, to come along and see what I’m up to. There is an argument to say that the only way to prepare for such an event is simply to be alive.

So, I have been forced to acknowledge that the illness is actually offering me a great gift as it is forcing me NOT to do all the things I would normally do in order to feel secure enough to perform in front of an audience. It is demanding that I simply arrive on the night and see what happens.

Of course, that’s not strictly true since old habits and fears die hard and some preparation will inevitably take place. But the form and content of that preparation will be totally alien to every process I’ve ever known. And what that means is that for each performance/offering/experiment I will have to be totally present and ‘in the moment’ (a state of being that is the Holy Grail for actors and performers) since there is literally nothing else I can rely upon.

And that also means that I have to let go completely of any notion that there is a ‘right’ way or a ‘wrong’ way to go about what I’m doing. Some people will love it, some will hate it – some will consider it to be valuable, others may think it is worthless – but neither group will be correct. It will not be ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ – it will simply be what it is.

I am indebted to my friend Stephen Donnelly of Swansea’s Shellshock Theatre who saw the first video diary and the section where I talked about ‘not knowing’. In response he sent me a fantastically interesting Ted Talk by Kathryn Schulz who dubs herself a ‘wrongologist’. She is fascinated by the creative potential that can be found when we let go of the desperate need to be ‘right’ all the time and acknowledge that being human is about getting things wrong. See video below.

So, the illness, whether I like it or not, is part of this process and is obviously going to prove vital in whatever happens at the 36 experimental offerings. I hope you’ll let me know your thoughts on any and all of this and come along to the offerings themselves.

One thing’s for certain – they’ll be unique ...



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