Okay. I have finally sat down to write again, almost two months after my last post. The extended absence wasn’t intentional – it was just how things turned out in the last weeks of Term 4 at Lispa. If I thought the end of term for the last three terms were bad, well, this end of term totally kicked my ass. In reality, we only had classes up till week 4. But then, from week 5 on, we were pretty much in rehearsal 2-3 hours for our final Creation, our final end-of-year presentation – the theatrical exploration of an existing physical space in London.
Let me back up a bit. This whole year, teachers had given us new themes every week or every other week, and told us to devise something based on the provocation. Rehearsal time was scheduled into class time – we started with two hours a week, and by the end of the year we were at twelve hours a week. Every week, rain or shine, we would present the results on Mondays in front of the teachers and the entire class. Good, bad, finished, unfinished – it didn’t matter. It wasn’t so much about creating polished pieces as it was about experimenting with different ways to devise collaboratively. This process, entitled Autocours at the Lecoq school in Paris, is named Creation at Lispa. Creation, Creation, Creation. It is a huge part of the Lecoq pedagogy, and it is here that we learn how to make original theater as a group. To create something out of nothing. Democratically. At any given moment, one can play the role of director, performer, writer, or designer – and everyone has equal say in the project. This way of working is, of course, much harder than the traditional way with designated roles. Yelling, screaming, crying, fights, frustrations, silences, these were all par for the course. Egos would flare, language barriers got in the way, and there would be the occasional unexplained tardiness or absence. Time and again we’d get to the end of the week with hardly any material, then literally create everything in the last rehearsal session before presentation. Often the pieces presented would be less than ideal, and even if they were okay, would still be heavily critiqued by the teachers. They hardly ever complimented us on what was good, or what worked – they would only comment on things that we haven’t done, other directions that we could have taken the piece into, or ways that we could have made the piece better.
By the end of the year, I think we’d all gotten a little better at working collaboratively. Maybe it helped that we were allowed to choose who to work with in the last two creations. Anyway. At the beginning of Term 4, we were given the assignment of observing an actual physical space in London, and then creating a piece of theater based on our observations. Our group (Brad, Ben, Darragh, Diego, Heather, James, Julieta, Kathleen, Matteo, Naomi, me) chose to look at the Smithfield Meat Market, a huge historic meat market in the center of town that had been around since Victorian times
We spent the first couple of weeks just visiting the market and observing: taking pictures, talking to people, making notes of interesting conversations and interesting things. Though the place is now fairly sterile, clean and efficient, it used to be much bloodier, much rougher, and much more chaotic. It was a den of thieves, a place that had its own rules. It was, and still is, a man’s world. We took tours with the constabulary (market police) and were able to go behind the scenes to look at the actual cutting and packaging of carcasses. Ben brought along a dictaphone, and I brought my camera. Then, we claimed a wall back at Lispa and promptly started plastering our material all over the place. It was Brad’s idea, to have a place to refer to when we needed inspiration. It would also be a good place to keep track of material that we generated in rehearsals. Dozens of color photo printouts made their way onto the wall. Slowly, notebook pages, doodles, magazine tear-outs, leaflets and index cards joined in.
We got on our feet and started creating at week 3. At this point, we were just improvising really, trying to generate a bunch of material without stopping to censor ourselves. We made use of several exercises we’d learned in Michael’s classes, for example, each person creating a movement gesture from their first impression of the meat market, then people doing it one by one, with the rest of the group joining in as a moving tableau. Diego brought in pictures of art by Francis Bacon and Sarah Lucas, and we used them as points of departure for improvisations. We made little pieces based on the idea of waiting, and of extraordinary things happening in ordinary situations (such as people dragging in dead carcasses to cut while other people stand around drinking coffee).
As the weeks went on we tried to find our way to a theme, something that we could anchor ourselves with. We experimented with different ones: the giving of flesh and blood, the fabric of the body, dressing carnal experiences, etc. We created little scenes like Darragh sewing Heather, Diego and Julieta together with a needle and thread, or Kathleen, Matteo and I slowly transforming ourselves from normal people to botox babes. At some point, it struck us that we had all coalesced around the idea of packaging carnal experiences, of making something messy into something that can be consumed. Things such as sex, and animals, made pretty and tamed so that people would buy them. A week ago, a number of us had gone to a strip club near the meat market, inspired by the many calendars of naked women in the market, and the fact that some of the workers were actual patrons. That experience fed into and entwined with our experience of the meat market. We continued talking, working, and arguing.
Then, as we started showing our material to the teachers, they started telling us that we had become too abstract, that as an innocent audience they were lost as to where we are, and what it is that we are representing. Even something as simple as us posing as dead carcasses hanging off meat hooks, is already a high level of transposition. They say we have become too fantastical, too theatrical too early, and that we need to come back to earth, to what we had actually seen at the meat market. We had started creating art before understanding life. It is true – it is easier to make stuff up than to painstakingly reconstruct what we had actually seen. For example, it is easier to writhe like a piece of meat being cut, than to address any of the following questions: How does a butcher hold a knife? What exactly does he do when he is cutting a lamb carcass? How does a shopkeeper talk? What words does he use? How does a forklift move?
So, we started doing this thing (again inspired by Michael) where we wrote down lists of sights, sounds, gestures and smells from the place, tear them into separate bits of paper, then pick four randomly and make something from it in 10 minutes. When that still was criticized as being too abstract, we sat down, and thought really hard about what the essential elements were that defined the market. The great arches of the building. The plastic flaps. The busyness of the forklifts. The precision of the trucks backing up to unload their meat.
We set about recreating these things in space in detail. We used our bodies to create the architecture of the market. We made sounds of birds chirping, trucks beeping. We made human forklifts. We created trucks and the loading docks into which they backed into. Gradually though, we started getting stuck because it felt like we were going through a shopping list. Okay, lets make the building, okay, now lets make the forklift, okay, now lets come up with a transition from the building to the forklift. Everything made less and less sense, and people started getting visibly frustrated.
Things came to a head on the Friday before the presentation. Amy had come to watch us do bits and pieces that we have made. Afterwards, it was is if she was playing devil’s advocate. She basically challenged us to feel more about what we were doing. What is it about the meat market that struck us the most? What is it that we wanted to show people? Is there a way to make transitions more poetic, to have one thing flow to another, to incorporate rhythmic changes, instead of this clunky laborious step-by-step? How can we create something more organic, more passionate without sacrificing any of the truth we had observed?
Wait, weren’t they the ones telling us that we were getting too abstract in the first place? I was confused. And then, spurred by Amy’s comments, our whole group got into this very intense discussion about our working process, with Diego, Julieta and Naomi especially getting very upset about the fact that they were feeling their voices haven’t been heard enough, that they were being disconnected to what we have been doing, and how they feel decisions were often made without them. That we have been structuring too much and playing too little. This opened up a whole can of worms, like the reality of differing degrees of English fluency, different cultural backgrounds and communication styles, issues of leadership, the way creation rehearsals are run, and so on and so forth. The bottom line is, we all wanted to create a great piece, and none of us have ever acted out of malice. In the end, we manage to reach a kind of peace.
We decided to start again with Diego’s idea of an open space – where we would have a very tangible theme and then improvise together based on the theme. Themes like the ones we were working with before: architecture, forklifts, trucks backing up. People were free to enter and leave the space whenever they wanted, responding to other people in the space while they were in, then leaving when they ran out of ideas.
This was when things really started clicking. By this time, we had worked together enough to know how to listen to each other, so the open space sessions just flew. Without even knowing it, we had finally stumbled onto a balance between real life and abstract poetry. We came up with lots of exciting new material that we loved, ones that got our guts and that were also grounded in reality. By looking back through the tapes and notes we’d made, we found loads of text that showed who these people are, the men who work at the meat market. Both the crass, sexual nature (“Oh that one, his name’s doozy cunt!”) and the vulnerability and humanity (“you can’t show weakness here, if you do they’d give it to you, as much as you can take”). In the end, we came up with a piece that we owned fiercely, and that was what it was all about, the raw and rough, side by side with the heartbreakingly tender. The meat market is a hard place, with men lifting, pushing, pulling, cutting meat all day to make a living. Men who are strong, and who often have to pretend to be stronger than they are. A stripper from the nightclub told us that once, a man paid her eight hundred pounds to hug him for three hours. Eight hundred pounds, just to hug him.
Maybe that man worked at Smithfield Meat Market.