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doing my job

November 6, 2011

I’m sat in a hotel room in Munich. I flew here this morning to run a week-long ensemble improvisation workshop with some German artists – mainly clowns and dancers.

Munich is not a city I know well – I’ve passed through it a number of times over the years but never stayed more than a few days. Now I have a week to meet people, explore in the evenings, try to improve my German a little….. Then two performances next weekend which will be a delight.

I went for a short walk along the river close to my hotel a while ago. Part of me wants to go out and see what Munich has to offer. Food. Music. People. A new city. An adventure….. That’s part of the joy of traveling and the joy of the work I do.

But also, I am very, very tired. And I am here to work. This is my job and it is important that I do it well. There will be time this week to explore, to have experiences, to meet something of Munich, but my first job is to do my job. Adventuring can probably wait. Sleep might be more important right now….

This time yesterday I was starting to warm up for a performance of ‘Echo Chamber’ in Bradford. As a performer, what is my job?

‘Echo Chamber’ is not an easy piece – to perform or to watch. It is intense, focused and condensed. It tells of a man pushed beyond that which can be endured – a man who does unendurable things. One commentator described it as ‘punishingly brilliant’.

As the performer, what is my job in such a piece?

There is a myth – a romantic myth I think – common in western attitudes to performance that the performer must ‘feel’ the emotion if he or she is authentically to portray the emotion. Partly this is a myth based on ideas of the ‘suffering artist’ (‘oh look, he’s really crying’….), partly I think it is based on a distrust of art. Audiences are afraid that if they are feeling some emotion and the artist is not feeling it too, then somehow they are being ‘fooled’. Somehow, so the myth goes, the audience is duped if what they experience is not really being experienced by the artist too.

This is a foolish myth. I cannot feel what the central figure of ‘Echo Chamber’ feels. Partly because it is not anywhere within my range of experiences to feel it, partly because if I were feeling it, or anything like it, I would not be able to discipline myself to be in front of an audience.

My job is to create the detailed structures that lead audiences through a story – or create for them a world they can inhabit – and to make it possible for that audience, if they choose, to feel something of the emotional resonance of the story being told.

My job is a technical job – to create, sustain and develop forms for an audience to watch and listen to. Yet when we say that a performance is ‘technical’, we are often implying that it is somehow not very good. How strange! Surely, technical competence is at the core of an artist’s job.

But, as we know, technique on its own is seldom really enough. There does need to be that living spark of something ‘other’ within the form that is being created if it is to move from being something that an audience ‘encounters’ to something that an audience’ experiences’. That spark need not be emotional ‘authenticity’ but it deos need to exist – or at least it needs to spark to life in live performance.

In ‘Echo Chamber’, as I shifted rapidly from character to character, one extreme to another, my job was to create, in detail the ‘form’ of the performance – to do the things I needed to do with my body and voice to tell the story I was telling. There was no need for an emotional engagement with the unfolding action – indeed there was a necessity that I keep the emotion at some distance if I was going to move irrevocably onwards through the piece. Yet the more ‘technical’ my focus, the more I paid attention to the detailed shape of each moment, the more easily accessible the emotional content of each moment became.

It is as if, in making the form, the emotional content naturally arose (rather than what happens if one focuses on the content – emotional authenticity – only to find that you have no coherent form to communicate it through). In focusing on the technical detail of the performance, moment by moment, I made myself avaialble to the emotional and narrative richness of the work. But when that richness threatened to be overwhelming, I could always switch my attention back to technical details so that I remain always able to sustain the performance.

This is my job – to sustain the performance.

The paradox of the five performances of ‘Echo Chamber’ – which of course is not really a paradox – is that the more ‘technical’ a performance, the greater my access (and the audience’s access) to an authentic, complex, lived experience.

My job is not to feel things, it is to do things and to remain open to the possibility of accessing feeling.

Now, sitting on my bed in a hotel room, I can move my head in a certain way and feel a well of possible emotion open up. The echoes of ‘Echo Chamber’ sit in my body and will erupt again in Melbourne in Australia.

Until then I have another job to do- though it is of course the same job – a new group to meet, a new dance to structure, old friends to meet, a new city to explore, an evening meal to find….

And that job is? To do the ‘form’ of my job, in detail and with a commitment to sustaining each action for as long as it need sustaining (whether that action is a single gesture or a week long workshop) and to allow whatever else arises -whatever surprises, adventures, emotional complexities – to inhabit the form of my work without ever overwhelming me.

My job is to do the my job.

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