I have a limitation as a writer which I suspect is already obvious to anyone who knows my work at all: I can only think about one thing at a time. I am partly ashamed of this. No one likes to consider the boundaries of their capacities. Partly, I rationalize the situation. Experience has taught me, after all, that an actor can only play one action at a time. You can describe a character in a novel acting from multiple, contradictory emotions and intentions… but don’t try asking an actor to show you that complexity … at least, not all at once. The actor can only pick up THIS letter knife from THIS desk to attempt to murder Uncle Morty right NOW. In the next scene he can regretfully kiss the corpse and in the next he can mourn the loss of a man he treasures while contemplating the value, or lack of value, in whatever he might discuss with his analyst “life” is.
But not all at the same time.
The character’s complexity exists in the mind of the audience once the audience has deduced that character from the successive composite of simple, discrete actions. Once the character has done everything the character is going to do, the story is over and we can say who “Hamlet” or “Faust” are. That’s how acting works, that’s theatre works. And how stories work. One thing at a time.
Action is simple. Richness is composite. Which brings me to “Who’s Watching Who?”
By accident rather than design, what had been one complex project has simplified its way into three projects on the road to becoming a complex of three projects which will somehow merge into one. Possibly. Or not. Ands each one has had to evolve distinctly, one at a time, within its own parameters. Inded, the chief value for me as an artist in this process has been coming to what I hope is a clarity about the possibilities and limitations of each piece of the puzzle.
To begin with there was Ensemble – a preliminary collection of interviews and archive material within which I thought an audience could find a shape for sympathetically understanding the strange yet familiar experience of theatre making in a society built on self-deception and surveillance … of compartments and compromises. I thought a verbatim text would allow of the anthropological exactitude and contradiction that convinces. The purpose of the piece can be summed up in the idea of “witness” and it is obvious that the best witnesses are those who were there. My personal subjectivity is then in my arrangement of the material, as a creative curator, as it were. My own pre-occuptions with artistic and political processes are expressed negatively, as it were, by what I leave out as well as what I include and the order in which I arrange it. The interviews and texts cited are here the simple actions … acts of memory, crucially … while the creation of an argument as to the nature and meaning of the experiences recounted from THEN and THERE and mediated into the HERE and NOW by my instincts as well as my analysis. Fiction that is ABOUT something has a terrible temptation to simplify built into it. “Documents” carry a different kind of authority, of authenticity…and the skilful arrangement of these irruptions from reality can make a composite series of simple actions that can give rise to the complexity and difficulty which lets you know that you’re dealing with the stuff of life rather than myth.
Emerging from that, deriving from the FEEL of that process came the second text (the one we’re rehearsing in Edinburgh this month) The Rehearsal Room which is a fictional text that consists of wholly imagined characters who have learned thorough life what I have learned from research. I have imagined a gathering of theatre makers at the personal and historical cusp, the moment of transition from the failure of the East German state towards an outcome that we know but that they don’t – the assimilation of the GDR into the “new” united Germany. It is a deliberately philosophical text, referring as it does to Bertolt Brecht’s “Socratic” dialogue on theatre that he wrote in exile and in the prospect of creating a new theatre out of the ruin of the Nazi period The Messingkauf Dialogues. I am not attempting to re-produce a real incident from a real past. Rather, it is an improvisation based on a present tense that is itself a fictional construct – a theatre company at the point of history … when the regime that has both repressed and sustained it has collapsed, and the moment for invention of the new seems to be upon them. In mood it is elegaic and fearful, hopeful and bitter. It is my attempt to touch and share the feelings of my colleagues. It is, really, my offer to them, and my question.
Is this what it was like? Does this speak to you?
Like with the verbatim piece, perhaps it is the specificity of the audience that gives the piece its purpose, its “one thing at a time”. The first piece, Ensemble, which I am going to enhance with the further material that it has provoked Laura Bradley into finding for me, is to allow the theatre makers to bear witness for us … to their experience. The second is a response from me to THEM…saying I hope I heard you, and here is what I have to say in return. It is intended as an act of imaginative solidarity in the shared hope of a better theatre in a better world.
Last, and not yet, I come to The Fire Sermon. This is the name of the fictional play that the characters in the Rehearsal Room have written and are proposing to rehearse. It is a play that doesn’t exist. Yet. But it might. One day, it might. Because in it I think I’ve found the contemporary resonance that feels like the present both here and now … and in the putative past of my imagined “small town in Germany” in 1976.
For reasons of political protest, finding the strength in religious belief, a man sets fire to himself in the car park of a church. Now we live in an era where self-immolation in the name of God, and in resistance to the powers that be … is not unfamiliar. And in the debates that rage about the meaning of this act of provocative suicide in East Germany in 1976, I fund the fuel for a signal of my own.
But even though this play is a product of this project, in order to be as free as it must be to follow its own poesis, to be true only to itself and its audience, it has to abandon the research and the project that made it possible for me to dream it, and to seek a way of turning that dream into the provisional reality of a “show” … with a real compmay, a real ensemble, in a real rehearsal room to be prepared for a real audience in a real place and time. And I can only do one thing at a time. The purpose of Who’s Watching Who has been to find forms within which the research that Laura Bradley has done can be presented. Which leaves me with the irony that what for me is the Product of the Project … The Fire Sermon … necessarily falls outside the project of serving Laura’s research.
In the words of Groucho Marx as oposed to Karl. “You never know where you’re going until you get there.”
Peter wrote this blog posting before this week’s script development workshop and the rehearsed reading at the Edinburgh Fringe … but Laura was too busy organising the events to post this until now!