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October 15, 2011

The stage is a very real place. On it a real person does real things, while real people watch. There are no secrets (which is the title of a great book by Peter Brook).

As I rehearse Echo Chamber, alone in a studio, every action I create, every sound, every look, is a real thing. It needs shape, duration, dynamic. Some actions need to be precisely fixed. They need repetition in rehearsal and need to be broken down into parts and re-assembled into a flow. Some actions are (re-) created only in the moment of their performance – in response to what came before, in response to the particular relationship with a particular audience on a particular occasion, in response to my sense of the capacity of my body to respond at the moment the action is being made. But these actions too need rehearsing and they need to be real  – created as a real response to a real, live stimulus. Everything that a performer does is real.

This does not mean that I particularly value ‘realism’. For me, the stage is a place of the free-playing imagination, of ambiguity, of paradox. It is a place to re-configure ‘real life’ so that we can understand it differently. For me the stage is primarily a place of the imagination. And this is its core paradox. It is a place of the imagination where everything is real. Other media – cinema and television in particular – are much more suitable to ‘realistic’ narrative, but the are entirely unreal. Cinema is flickering light on a wall and television… actually I don’t know how a television works in the days of plasma and digital…..

But a live performer does real things in real time.

I’m thinking about this as my body aches from a rehearsal yesterday. I am still recovering from a serious back injury and do not really know what I can ask of myself. I’m not as young as I used to be…. If I push too far the consequences will be very real. But I have to consider, am I holding back from intelligence or fear? There is a place that I need to find if I am to make ‘Echo Chamber’. It is a very real place. Between preserving and caring for my body and finding the necessary form of the show. Every thing in the show demands the real use of muscle, thinking, voice, imagination, memory.

Yet there is often a sense, an assumption, that what we do in the studio, in workshops, in rehearsal, in our performances, is not part of real life.

What is this real life?

Earlier in the week, I received an email from a very dear friend, musing on reality. And I spent a couple of days preparing the publicity for a two week residential workshop DUENDE is running next summer on the Greek Island of Lesbos. ( In particular the Lesbos workshop seems unreal. People I have spoken to since I sent that publicity out into the world, talk about it as a chance to ‘escape real life’ and be an artist for a couple of weeks.

What is this real life?

Real life, as an artist, is in the making of art. It is in warming up. In learning a gesture. In making mistakes. In finding and embodying understandings. In learning how to do real things and then learning how to re-do them while and audience is watching.When I’m working with others, reality is in a look, the quality of a touch or the intonation of a voice. Reality is in hearing someone breathe. Is the smile shared between two performers who have just found something wonderful, somehow less real than the demands of a tax form? Is singing a song together less real than filling in a risk assessment, or a funding application form?

Unless you are born rich, most of the time we earn money doing someone else’s work for them – doing the things that others have decided need doing and that they give us money to do. And if those things are absurd, ridiculous, pointless, demeaning, frustrating, inhuman…..(and anyone who works in any kind of a bureaucracy knows that all these things are commonplace)? Well we do them anyway, because someone else has decided that we must. “Real life” apparently is getting paid to pointless things for people we will never meet.

Is this the reality we, as artists, are assumed to be running away from?

Is a few rich men (with the co-operation of a few self-serving politicians) inventing money, losing that money and in the process bankrupting the Western world ‘reality’? I think that an aching muscle, a smile, a kiss, a dance, are all much much more real and much, much more important than any of that.

To go to the rehearsal room and dance is not to flee reality, it is to inhabit reality. To stare out of the window and indulge your imagination is to embrace the possibilities of reality. To go to Lesbos to make art on the beach for two week is not an escape from reality, is is a return to reality. To commit to being an artist, is to commit to a daily engagement with absolute reality, and to commit to transforming and reconfiguring that reality in that way that only you can do.

I spent a while this afternoon in a Sculpture Park not far from where I live. My favourite place there is a large, mainly white, underground room with a square cut in the ceiling. Through it you gaze at the sky. Just the sky. Framed (because art provides a frame). Just sky. And cloud. An occasional bird. Or pattern of birds. Or high above, a plane. Or two planes whose paths intersect. Or an insect. A leaf. After a while, it gets very busy, just staring at the sky through a hole in the roof.

And my thoughts begin to quieten. Because the discussion I was having in my head with someone who was not there, was not real. The fears about what might happen in rehearsal tomorrow are not real. The hurt at… the worry that.. the hope that… none of it real.

My breath is real. My partner, writing on a bench opposite me is real. A leaf, falling through the hole in the roof is real.

This is real life. Now.

Reality, surely,  is when we are doing our own work.

Reality, surely, is a person doing the thing they are uniquely equipped to do.

Reality, surely is paying attention to being the very best version of yourself, right now.


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