Last month’s CHAT/SHOW was the best attended yet with over 20 people coming along to listen to me ramble on about conversation and then having some themselves. Now, 20 people may not seem like very many and you’d be right but in the context of this work it’s just about perfect. 20 people is a large enough group to allow everyone to feel safe and anonymous at the beginning of the evening but also small enough to allow them to feel that they can bond with, and get to know, the people with whom they’ve shared the experience. This work is not just about communication but about actually dropping barriers that we put up between ourselves and others. I know for myself that I tend to walk around the world wearing a protective forcefield that stops me from having to deal with the other people I come across in the world. And that’s fine ... but the negative impact of that is that over time I begin to fear and be suspicious of others for no other reason than that they are ‘other’ to me. And that can only lead to the world becoming a scarier and colder place.
The purpose of the One Eyed Man Project – I now begin to realise – is not just about me finding a place to vent my spleen in the hope of meeting like minded curmudgeons. It’s actually about re-igniting the possibility of genuine connection and communication between people – and providing a space where people can let their guard down just enough to recognise that they are not alone.
Now ... I need to reassure you that, despite not having lived there for over 20 years, I am still a Yorkshireman. I’m dour, suspicious, cynical and I wear a flat cap. My bullshit detector has been beeping madly as I typed that last couple of paragraphs. But the fact of the matter is that I have learned throughout my life that the old maxims are there because they are true. To quote Paul Weller – what you give is what you get. When all I put out into the world was gloomy, cynical bitterness at my lot in life, that was all I received in return. When I decided to try and put some good energy out there – just for a change, for the hell of it – what do you know? I got good energy back in return. So, I couch all this in a blanket of dour northerness but all I can say is that I tried the other way and it really didn’t work for me ...Back to CHAT/SHOW – the piece continues to evolve. As with all this work, I don’t prepare, script or rehearse. The basic reason behind this is because I want to have a conversation with my audiences and you cannot plan a conversation. I have one more scheduled monthly CHAT/SHOW in Swansea – 17th at Tapestri cafe – and then I will begin to change some of the emphasis on what I do. I’ll still hold CHAT/SHOWs but in future I plan to give people much more time to talk to each other. Currently, it’s ten minute slots with topics about conversation – two people talking and one observing. In future I plan to give at least half an hour to groups of three and the topics will be questions about life, the world and our place in it. I know it will be a big leap for people but I feel sure that it will really enrich the experience.
But I’m constantly asking myself, where is this work is going? I asked this even more as, for the second time, I attended the spring meeting of IETM in Copenhagen at the end of March. I went to the meeting in Stockholm last year to mark my coming out as The One Eyed Man and this meeting really made me question what I’m up to a year on. For those of you who don’t know, IETM (Informal European Theatre Meeting) is a network of contemporary performance and theatre makers across Europe and beyond who meet twice a year to share ideas, thoughts and working practices. It’s basically a huge talking shop – which you’d think would be easy for someone who hosts an event called CHAT/SHOW but you’d be wrong. I spent most of my time there absolutely terrified of simply going up to someone I don’t know and starting a conversation. Physician, heal thyself ...
Anyway, the theme of this meeting was ‘Right?’ – in all permutations of that word – and I was quickly engaged by the stories and ideas that were being shared. I also very quickly got bloody annoyed. You see, I don’t want to tar all artists with the same brush (and God knows I’m in no position to be pious ...) but the tone of what I was hearing was pretty depressing. Faced with global collapse and austerity and the tightening of belts across the world whilst those with money try and convince those of us who don’t have it to have even less of it, the arts community is up against it. State funding for the arts – like all state funding – is under threat and being questioned like it hasn’t been for a generation. This is a time when artists need to be on the front foot, arguing for the value and usefulness of the arts to society. Not in an instrumentalist way – we’re not propagandists for the state - but rather as useful and vital members of society, not pompous arses who stand outside it. But what I found amongst my colleagues at IETM was a level of complacency and entitlement that shocked and angered me. I hasten to add this didn’t come from everyone but it was a general tone I picked up in many of the working groups and meetings. One person put it bluntly – “I’m an artist. I should be paid for doing nothing.”
Yes, fine. Perhaps I could suggest that you wake up and smell the coffee, my friend ...
I offered a suggestion in one of the working groups that set the cat amongst the pigeons and I offer it again here because I profoundly believe it.
Artists have forgotten that we are a service industry and that we exist to serve our community.
Okay, calm down, let me explain ...
Now, by ‘service’ I don’t mean that we are vassals of the state or that we should simply parrot propaganda. I mean that our role is clear – we provide entertainment, stimulation, controversy, reflection and challenge for our community and that we are reactive to it. Artists, it seems to me, have got into a peculiar habit of simply talking to and reacting to themselves. Art for art’s sake, if you will. Well, I don’t believe in that at all. The world is changing rapidly and art can’t simply sit on the sidelines, examining it’s navel and pompously declaring that it’s art so it can do what it likes. Art needs to get into the thick of things and get its hands dirty. I was incredibly inspired at IETM by hearing Nora Amin speak.
She runs her company in Cairo and described how they took their work onto the streets and into Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt. Their lives were often in danger as they began to improvise and play as theatre makers in a rapidly shifting and volatile street environment. Now, my society isn’t breaking down in the way that Nora’s did (although I often wonder if it bloody should!) but the fact remains that this is what artists should be doing – getting out of our cosy, usual environments and engaging with people directly.
There was much talk of ‘new models’ and ‘shifting paradigms’ at IETM and this seems to me to be crucial. I love theatre – always have, always will – but the old model is set in aspic. Write a play, cast it, rehearse it, advertise it, sell tickets, build a set, the audience come (or more often don’t) and sit in the dark while we tell them a story. But if you go back to how performance started – as inspired the One Eyed Man – there wasn’t this artificial gap between audience and performer and the work presented was totally present and reactive to the world. It’s this that inspires me and makes me feel that, in a small way, the work I’m doing is akin to that of Nora Amin.
So, where do I go from here?
It’s my intention to look further afield and to present the work in as many places as will have me. I’m no longer funded by Arts Council Wales and won’t be seeking funding to support the work in the near future so the aim is for it to at least support itself. I will seek residencies of a week at a time in various cities and venues around the country. There I intend to present CHAT/SHOW alongside it’s forerunner and sequel.
Last years’ work has now been renamed as RANDOM/ACT – a free flow conversation around anger, grumpiness, bitterness ... and random acts of kindness. This brings me to something I’ve long wanted to mention on this blog – last year I offered each audience the opportunity to pick what I would do with a day of my life ... and I promised to do it. So far, of 29 tasks, I have performed two. This is not because I don’t intend to keep my word but rather because I’ve spent most of the last year battling illness of one kind or another. But I intend to keep my word and fulfil my promises AND I intend to continue to offer audiences the chance to give me more.
So, RANDOM/ACT will take its place alongside CHAT/SHOW. And what of the third in this trilogy? I go back to my original intention which was to see what people really needed to talk about and then to talk about it – and I will offer a new variant called MIND/GAME. In this evening I will offer people an anonymous forum to air something private which they would really like to discuss – and then discuss it. So, this trilogy of variants will make up the work I take into the wider world outside Wales.
I’m dead excited by the possibilities of this work and was really inspired by seeing a show in Copenhagen called The Venus Labyrinth by a company called Cantabile 2. In this show, audience members went into rooms alone with a single performer and experienced something deeply personal and emotional. It was incredibly powerful and moving. The company, under artistic director Nullo Facchini, follow a methodology which they call ‘human specific performance’ as opposed to site specific. I love this notion as it chimes exactly with what I’m trying to do with The One Eyed Man. Performance tailored specifically to the human beings present in the room.
There you go ... lots of thinking, planning, cogitating and all of it leads back to me standing in front of rooms of people with no idea what to say but the profound and passionate desire to be of service as an artist.
Thanks for reading this and do leave me any thoughts or comments either here or on Facebook: The One Eyed Man or Twitter: @manoneeye
Hopefully see you - specifically - soon.
PS - Brene Brown who has inspired so much of the work I do in The One Eyed Man gave another extraordinary TED talk last month. If you haven't caught up with her work yet, you must. Watch this and then go and watch all her other stuff. She's so incisive on vulnerability and shame and I absolutely adore her. Check it out.