To Harvey Weinstein

The first time I felt the disorientating sting of sexism within the entertainment industry was not from a man but from a woman.

My first professional audition was for a film. A good one. I’m twenty and acting is all I want to do. I stayed in character on the train. I was even involved in a squirrel getting hit by a car and thought this must be some kind of sign that would orientate me towards the essence of my character. It was in fact just an unlucky squirrel.

In the room is a middle aged, rather angry looking lady, flagged by a stylish younger woman and an even younger man. The woman in the middle, the boss, sees I’m with a high-ranking agent. ‘How did you get an agent like this while you’re still at university?’ I think she’s sneering but I also think I must be wrong and so I tell her the story. An actor friend came to see a piece of work I did, he liked it, he invited his agent, he liked it too, so I now have the said agent. ‘Right so you’re here because someone fancies you – great.’ ‘I hope not,’ I say. ‘Go on and read then,’ she retorts.

I remember her words making me feel very small but also my earlier squirrel work had focused me. I had a job to do and I was going to do it well.

I did my reading and she was silent. ‘You have gravitas,’ she finally said. ‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘But I think you may be too old for this part. I’ll send you up for it but there’s probably something else here too’. She starts flicking through the script and something about her head suddenly breaking the angle of her eyes on me makes me smart again. Am I only here because someone fancied me? Am I? Before I know what I’m doing I’m standing up: ‘Don’t worry. Good luck with your film’.  She looks a little shocked and says: ‘I like your look, I like your coat,’ as if it has some kind of deep meaning that I’m meant to understand.  ‘Yes it’s warm,’ I say, perhaps with my own deep meaning I’m hoping she’ll hear.

I remember gratefully breathing in the air of the car park while reeling. What was that? Who was that? Now in my mid-thirties I might know who and what that was. This woman knew how the industry I was gearing myself up for worked. It might be I was indeed there because someone fancied me. I might also have been good at what I do. She may not have been making any kind of distinction between the two facts. She may also have thought that what she said was some kind of compliment: I recognise that you have the kind of currency women need to get ahead in this industry. I however, at that point, was ignorant of the male gaze having anything to do with what I loved doing but my gut told me to run a mile from that audition. The irony is I really wanted that part.

I wish women’s voices had already been clamouring in protest about the messy knotted feeling in the stomach when your skill set becomes confusingly entwined with your sex. Did I create this toxic atmosphere? Am I not capable in what I do? I wish I’d read the brilliant words of Lucy Prebble then and been able to recognise that this dynamic wasn’t just something I was bringing to the table. There was a strange atmosphere of underlying complicity but I didn’t understand what I was supposed to be complicit in. I hadn’t brought my sex into the room I just wanted to do my job. How do you kick back against this unformed atmosphere in the right way without feeling that you are the drag and without missing opportunities to do the work you love doing?

I wish I’d known what to do when sleazy casting directors texted me at 2am to tell me how talented I was. I wish I’d stood up to the older male actor who told a female TV director that he wouldn’t improvise for her because he’d worked with Mike Leigh and who was ‘this woman’ anyway? Or when I heard an actress complain in fury that her agent had put her forward for the ‘plain looking’ part and all the female actresses agreed nodding heads together in outrage. I remember thinking, aren’t plain looking people also people and isn’t our job to be, well, people?

Without trawling through the horror show of my experiences as an actress there is one that feels useful to share. Perhaps as a warning, perhaps as catharsis. I don’t know, but here it is:

This director had worked with Mike Leigh and thought that acting was holy. He didn’t like to think of the person in front of him as a person; he/she was a character and had to remain as such. The warning signs came when we were using a Leigh method to devise the background for the character. I was using people from my real life and sharing attributes of their characters.  As a code of ethics, we agreed I wouldn’t talk about anyone he knew. He was choosing which of these elements to keep in order to build the background of our character.  Information which was shared in confidence, was soon after used, without my consent, to make work, in ways which I now think are unethical.

The show we were doing together was a one woman show (written by a man) about a young woman who becomes pregnant by an older man and ends up being abandoned and killing her baby. The entire show is static, water drips slowly onto the performer and she is lit by a light reflecting off a small patch of water and onto her face. It was beautiful in its own way. During the rehearsal period I realised I was pregnant, from my own heart drama, and was going to have to have an abortion. I told the director because I had to. I was vomiting in the mornings and kept crying when we ventured into scenes involving holding the fake child, a bundle of rags and sellotape. I asked for time off in order to have the operation and recover but the director told me my experience would be useful for the part and that he’d hired me to do a job and I should do it. If I didn’t someone else would do the tour and we’d have wasted all the hard work we’d done.

I don’t want to name and shame this director. He was young and ambitious – as was I – and I have told him in person that I wouldn’t work with him again as well as telling him why. He has now grown up as an artist and again so have I.

Looking back I don’t know why I didn’t demand to delay the opening. But I also do know why: you are made to feel like there are a thousand women who’d take your part in an instant. I was made to feel like all this was my fault. This was my body. I had gotten pregnant. I felt ashamed. In the operating room the doctor said, ‘you’re the second actress we’ve had in today.’

On opening night my womb ached from the operation the day before. My actor friend who first got me my agent came to support, and only because he was there, (he was successful), my agent came too. During that performance a little part of me died; the part that stands on a table as a child and does a little turn to make the adults laugh; the part that has a kind of burning bright spirit and knows that words can make a room light up or time slow down.  That night, for me, acting became harmful. Me and my little sellotape baby died and never came back again.

The show went on to get amazing reviews and be called ‘a masterclass’. Each night, for six months or so, I performed this masterclass while also trying to work out how to untangle myself from the experience; searching for how to still be part of the thing I loved without irrevocably hurting myself.

This industry is supposed to be about people, about humanity. If you’re going to destroy people while doing it, or want to do it so much that you end up destroying yourself, then what on earth is the point?

Now over twelve years later I’m still here. But here in the way I want to be here. I am now a director. Through a lot of hard work I rediscovered the joy and the beauty in theatre. I won’t let anyone tell me what theatre is or isn’t or who it is or isn’t for. I removed myself from people who cared about success and Hollywood and tried to seek out people that cared about making art, with skill and intelligence. No one is ‘breaking’ anybody in my rehearsal room – ‘breaking’ a phrase I’ve heard in a bragging tone used by male directors in regards to emotionally vulnerable actresses who finally ‘break’. I have no idea why breaking someone would be useful when making work, either in the long term or if you have any sense of human dignity – your actors are skilled collaborators and should be treated as such.

As a female director I feel honoured to be entrusted with a cast who are looking to me to support them. I always say before a cast goes on stage: you can do no wrong and YOU are more important than the show – because people are.

I realise now I was very unlucky as a young actress. I used to think, if I was being unkind to myself, that my radar was too sharp and I found what I saw too ugly to remain and perhaps that was my problem rather than a problem with the industry.

Now I must say I know lots of amazing people in this industry, male and female, who want to make good work. I am lucky now, as an adult, that I know these people and I’m hugely grateful for them.

My hope is that this new dialogue around sexism might mean that young women are better equipped to know their boundaries and their strength and that the people who abuse those boundaries will find it harder to hide behind their power.

I’d like to thank all the women who came out about Harvey Weinstein’s behaviour and all the women who have written in response with solidarity.

I wanted to be honest and brave and do the same.

This is going to be a long road but there’s plenty of witnesses here to support and work for the changes that we must see.

The entertainment industry must stop playing this old fashioned game. It’s uninteresting, unnecessary, disrespectful and harmful.

 

 

 

Drax

In June 2008 twenty nine people stopped a coal train heading for Drax Power station. In 2009 all involved were found guilty of obstructing a railway after being disallowed to run a necessity defence which argued the burning of coal contributed to irreversible and fatal changes in our climate. In 2014 the convictions were overturned after a senior judge ruled that there had been ‘a complete and total failure’ to disclose evidence gathered by the undercover police officer, Mark Kennedy, during the original trial.

Recollections.
Form taken from Joe Brainard’s book ‘I remember’.

I remember the first north bound passenger train waiting to pull out of the station in London and getting a feeling in some part of my body that there might be a before and an after and that if I did take that train then I would know the after and if I didn’t then I’d remain in the before.

I remember a boy with white hair and a name I couldn’t pronounce who made me self conscious of the way words sounded after they left my mouth. I thought his girlfriend spoke too loudly and that he had beautiful hands.

I remember text messages being important and sitting next to a man with sun dark skin who didn’t speak as he drove a van.

I remember sleeping in an industrial yard on the floor of a large barge and staying awake in the dark.

I remember it was very early and my shoe got stuck in the mud, the kind of mud that smells more like shit than mud but has no perceptible difference to mud other than a hideous smell.

I remember that while we ran alongside a hedge I couldn’t believe I was going to do this action with only one shoe. I then saw an abandoned white nike trainer further on that looked roughly my size and so I put it on and climbed the train with one wrong large shoe.

I remember hands taking my weight and the colour of rust.

I remember seeing a friend’s face change from defiance to fear.

I remember fields and quiet.

I remember the sound of a polite journalist’s voice who was there almost before we were. In fact I think he actually was there before us and I think he said, ‘Um… hello’.

I remember seeing ropes being put up and a man hanging proudly like a monkey.

I remember thinking that I was surprised by how unafraid I was.

I remember the thud of coal hitting the ground and a discussion being had about whether it was too aggressive or a little bit meaningless to drop coal off the side of the train.

I remember people using spades as puppets (I think one of them was me) and getting an uncomfortable feeling in my throat that maybe there was a fine line between making a point and being smug.

I remember seeing policemen covering up the numbers on their shoulders and that it made me  angry and glad I was there.

I remember thinking how riot gear looks quite sci-fi.

I remember being told by a policemen to stop smiling when I wasn’t smiling.

I remember faces smeared with coal and eyes looking brighter than they normally did.

I remember my friend as she D-locked her neck to a part of the train and thinking that I’d never loved her more.

I remember thinking about ladders and I wondered if the police were down there having detailed discussions about ladders.

I remember the feeling of having your den invaded but instead of sticks the other team had batons.

I remember walking down a long railway track with my wrists cuffed behind my back and a policeman on the phone behind me saying what he’d like to do to me.

I remember feeling profoundly lucky I spoke English and that I understood what was happening.

I remember thinking that Kate Middleton would become queen and I definitely would not.

I remember the way one face looked at me when he told someone to tighten my handcuffs.

I remember facing pink tinted windows that made the sunset look like a tropical postcard. I watched it until my eyes went funny because I didn’t want to turn my head.

I remember seeing huge chimneys against a pink Yorkshire sky.

I remember the policewoman’s black ponytail and her forehead and realising her and I were the only women.

I remember one policemen describing seeing a homeless man electrocute himself when climbing into an industrial building.

I remember the sound of a Yorkshire accent on the words ‘fizzed’ and ‘popped’.

I remember the smudge of the black finger print and how it matched the smudges of coal on my arms.

I remember the relief of being spoken to kindly when a policeman began telling me his wife had been part of the Newbury bypass protests.

I remember feeling calm and clear and it reminded me of the feeling I used to get before going on stage.
I remember the sound of the cell door shutting.

I remember lying flat looking up for hours.

I remember squinting in order to make the shapes in the glass squares above my head change and seeing in the new shapes a mermaid man that reminded me of a Paul Klee painting.

I remember thinking about the person I loved and had hurt. I imagined going to prison for not being able to love someone well enough.

I remember thinking about forgiveness.

I remember hearing singing through my cell door.

I remember acknowledging that policemen don’t have fun jobs and that if I worked there I may not be able to be reasonable to everyone I met.

I remember imagining what it would feel like if I didn’t know I would be able to leave.

I remember the yellow light of the community centre where we slept and ate together once we were all released.

I remember checking my email whilst people slept and hearing that I had an audition at The National Theatre and it seeming strange.

I remember getting a phone call and hearing two bin bags of papers had been taken from my room and I thought of my letters and drawings and I cried for the first time.

I remember getting ill and my mother continuing to ask me if it was because I was nervous about the trial and me explaining over and over again that this definitely was not the reason.

I remember a conversation where most of us admitted to wanting to marry our lawyer.

A few months later I sat on the train on the way to Leeds. My lawyer admitted he normally pretends to have work to do when he is on a train with a client in order not to have to speak to them but for me he was happy to sit and talk. We were late and so had to run through the streets of Leeds to get to the court in time. In the dock I felt very small and very large at the same time and this feeling reminded me of being spoken to by teachers at school and more recently auditioning for acting jobs. On the way back to London I saw the chimneys of Drax out of the train window. I wondered how many more times in my life I would see them on my way north or south along this well travelled line and if seeing them would mean something different each time.

Now Is The Time To Say Nothing @ The Young Vic

Interview with Verity Healey of Ministry of Counterculture 

– What drew you to making a piece about Syria’s civil war and its people, for Taking Part?

– Simple answer is that I was asked to. I was nervous about saying yes as I don’t speak Arabic and I have never been to Syria.I spoke to a wonderful Egyptian friend who has spent a long time in Syria and talked through my ideas. I wanted to think about how we receive global conflicts from within the UK. How can we stay human in response to political and social trauma that we usually witness only through the press?

 

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– How did you find filmmaker Reem Karssli and what is it about her experience and the problems she and her family face in Damascus that informs the work and makes it seem so close and heartfelt?

– My collaborator May Abdalla showed me Reem’s film within our research period. I was completely blown away by the tone and pace of Reem’s film. Every Day Every Day is so quiet and yet full of acute restlessness and claustrophobia. It was about a family and about the conflict specifically through the eyes of a young woman. It was the most personal and heart breaking account I’d seen. There was no gore and no guts, just a family trying to normalise to a very not normal situation. This I think allows for the viewer to immediately relate; this could be your family, this could be your life.

– Your director’s note states you wanted to analyse “the semantics of the news and our relationships to screens”?

– I read Alain De Botton’s book The News, as well as returning to John Berger and Susan Sontag. The history of the photograph and moving image is something that’s always fascinated me. It is an inherent part of modern culture and what does it do to that culture? What does it mean to be able to capture an instance of drama or pain? Does it distance us when we watch those images outside of their context?

I’ve always remembered Dennis Potter talking about TV as the first form of democratic art. It was beamed into people’s homes and there is something wonderfully intimate and powerful about that. Before there were a million channels, the television could be a tool for true social engagement. If everyone in an entire country watched the same programme and discussed it the next day, how wonderful would that be? Perhaps that’s why I love Goggle Box so much!

The screen is a tool for poetic exploration. Filmmakers like Adam Curtis show how it can be utilised to great effect. I think, a tool is the right word, like words, images (screens) can be manipulated and used: whether that is for good or bad depends on who is doing the manipulating.
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– At the post show discussion Charlotte Onslow (Gender and Peacekeeping at International Alert) underlined the significance of “institutions” and their ability to “amplify what we understand as important.” Can you talk about that in terms of Now Is The Time To Say Nothing and the significance of art/protest theatre and institutions in general? Should we, could we, be doing more protest/actions/campaigning?

– I thought that was a very honest thing for her to say and it made me think about the Young Vic and its power within this project. Would those young people have stood in Hyde Park protesting about Syria without knowing an institution they respect had organised it and more importantly, approved of it? When the power of ideas is strong enough, we don’t need institutions to force us into action- we become our own force. But perhaps, especially with young people, institutions can be useful: they can choose the flames they want to fan and often the fires burn brighter because of their networks of supporters.

– The talented young Londoners you worked with were given a slightly different from normal audition process. Can you explain how and why it was important to the piece? What did they bring?

– I knew that anyone who simply wanted to act would get bored. I didn’t even know when we began if there would be any acting in the piece. I needed a company who would devise together and who would be passionate about making the best piece of work we could make. I looked for intelligence, integrity and heart. I was constantly amazed by the young people. They were incredible thinkers, writers and artists. Even the most shy would prove pivotal at a moment where we needed to be provoked in a certain direction. I treated them like a company. Their ideas were as valid as mine. It took me a long time to tell them they didn’t have to put their hands up to speak. I wanted them to interrupt me! I wanted them to challenge me and ask questions.

– How do you think the experience has changed them and how they now think about and interact with the world?

– It’s very difficult to say. I know they have been changed in their own individual ways. I think just being shown you CAN make something, you CAN reach out to people, you CAN stand in a park and shout about what you believe in, is a valid experience to go through. My first political action was when I was 20 years old. Theirs’ has been at the age of 15. I hope I’ve empowered them not to toe the line. I am excited they got to see my collaborators Reem Karssli, May Abdalla (film artist) and Keir Vine (sound artist) at work. They’ve been around amazing artists who are at the top of their game. It’s a hard time to be an artist but maybe this experience will give them a little more grip on how to stick at it, if that’s what they want to do.

– How has this experience and the processes of working with Reem, informed your own work and changed how you may work in the future?

– I’ve been struggling the last few years with how to make theatre, when I don’t necessarily want to work with actors. I was an actor myself and I fell out of love with the idea of pretending to be other people. There is so much going on in the world that needs telling right now- real stories. And yet I believe in the power of stories and in the power of the imagination. How can these two things meet? Reem is a deeply poetic filmmaker who uses real life but also weaves her own imaginative perception of the world into the fabric of reality. She shared my artistic sensibility and gave me freedom to make something full of poetry and also real life. Reem has taught me that my ideas are communicable and that I need to continue following my gut to make work that speaks to me, rather than what the theatre world expects.

– What is the overall message, if there is one, you hope an audience will take away with them after watching Now Is The Time To Say Nothing?

– Try to remain human when consuming news of events far away. Remember it could be you. Try to use technology in a way that might make a positive impact. If we all skyped someone in Syria, rather than posting photos of ourselves, do you think the world might be a little bit of a better place? I think it was Berger who was asked what the one thing is that he thinks might help the world, and he said after all his reading, it was simply to be a little nicer to one another. I hope this piece reinforces that idea.

– Obviously, there was a relationship that was struck up between you and the young people with Reem. How can/will that continue and how much may this experience also have helped her and perhaps her family? Can it set some sort of precedent do you think?

– I hope it might. We are trying to organise for her to come to Edinburgh. We are also pushing to help her get her visa. It is very difficult to know how to help her family, other than by continuing to be a good friend. The problems in Syria can feel overwhelming. I aim to be a good friend and do anything in my power to hep her remain sane and safe.

– Lastly, for some people, especially in such war torn areas or going through other related crises brought on by civil distress, art may be the last thing on their minds. But, taking into account your experience here, how important is it as a healing and informative tool?

– This is a difficult question. In true times of trauma I don’t know if the direct activity of ‘watching’ art is useful. There were times when Reem felt unable to be involved because the experience felt too alienated from what she was experiencing in her own life. We were meant to end the show with a live Skype call to Reem, but she pulled out of it exactly because at that moment art didn’t feel important or real compared to the crises her life was in. Reem herself talks about it in the show (the moment projected on the wall) ‘if I can’t connect with myself how can I connect with other people?’ I would go on to say if one can’t connect with oneself, how can one connect with art? You can’t. But that can pass when things begin to get a little better and actually when things are a little better, art is important. It reminds us of what we love, what challenges us and what, essentially, we live for. It can help to heal, if the path to healing is ready to be trod and like any kind of healing, it can surprise us.

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Ten things I remember from a trip to Paris

Ten things I remember about Paris (whilst still in Paris in the cafe of the Pompidou) where they won’t take card for under fifteen euros; I am not buying anything.

1. Le Corbusier did not build the Pompidou.

2. My French is bad and so the way to remember the famous grave yard in Paris is to think of a father on a chair. Or a large chair which is the father of the smaller chairs.  Comme ca:
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3. Theatre maker Robert Wilson with a painted white face surrounded by scrawled cardboard signs making John Cage’s ‘Lecture on Nothing’ seem really terrible.

4. Homeless people in Paris are not looked after or/and have nowhere better to go than the subways;  a man shooting up and one lying in his own shit.

5. Piere ‘Hugh’ has a name like my friend Hugh but with a Y in it somewhere. I am bad at remembering names and at speaking French.

6. Piere HuYghe IS very good or perhaps I stumbled upon the sometimes of him being really very good.

7. The sometimes:

A large black room, music playing and two rectangular lumps of concrete hovering over each other- between them green red and white lights shining through smoke. I read later that the music was by Erik Satie. Strong sensation that this thing was acutely artificial, in material and construction, and yet tacitly evocative of the opposite. I cried for the first time in a gallery. I thought I was alone until a man in a large bird mask and jeans stood up in the dark and walked slowly out of the room. Either I am unhinged or this was very beautiful.

8. There is an area in which there is a restaurant which is named after a song about cherries. ( I will cheat and find the name in a text message: ‘Le Temps Des Cerises in Butte Aux Cailles’. ) Deborah and I became regulars and we met a waiter who comes a lot to Camden.

9. Theatre producer Jim Haynes thinks I look like Joan of Arc; I think Jim Haynes looks like Father Christmas. He told me his ex wife did not come to his 80th birthday party. He wears a red apron which says ‘Jimmy’.

10. Oscar Wilde’s grave is now clean. A notice says any subsequent cleaning costs will be charged to his family. There are now only a few lipstick marks and the pale trace of old graffiti. Someone has stolen the cock from the naked angel. Jacob Epstein designed the grave. There is a quote which reads: ‘outsiders always mourn.’ Someone has put a copy of Swann’s Way on Proust’s grave, the pages are wet and turning yellow.

Puffball @ The Yard

puffball

Review of Puffball Goes Solo in Exeunt Magazine

Puffball at The Yard Theatre
24th-28th September 2013
Reviewed by Catherine Love

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Caroline Williams is inundated with owl paraphernalia. Bags, cushions, figurines stuffed with stale potpourri. Owl faces peer out from all corners of the stage, eyes wide and unblinking, feathers a variety of colours. All that’s missing is a link to a YouTube video and the hashtag “cute”.

But Williams’ show, unlike the twee figurines that she passes around the audience, only flirts with whimsy. The painted owls are the echoes of a real one, the eponymous Puffball, who Williams looked after and nursed back to health a few years ago. After she and Puffball finally parted company, Williams tells us, friends and family suddenly flooded her with owl themed items, from soft furnishings to pieces of jewellery. The problem is, she doesn’t really want them.

This flurry of well-meaning but unwanted gifts is an apt metaphor for the darker, fast-beating heart of the show, buried beneath the fluffy feathers. At the same time as Puffball was recovering from his injuries, Williams was also trying to get better, although her wounds were not visible ones. Somewhere between the laughter, the figurines and the charmingly simple Microsoft Paint illustrations that are projected onto the back wall of the Yard, Puffball obliquely but painfully conveys the experience of depression. The owl offerings – simplified and infantilising versions of the real thing – can be read in this context as misguided attempts to understand the tangled complexities of mental illness; given with the best of intentions, but unhelpful nonetheless.

This is never quite as simple, however, as a human story seen through that of an anthropomorphised animal. True, Williams offers Puffball an acute, troubled consciousness, evocatively narrating his emotions – from the paralysing terror of falling from the treetop canopy to the numb apathy of his slow recuperation. But this is countered with an insistence that what we are being told is purely the “truth” about owls, an insistence that is reiterated by punctuating the show with a series of “owl facts”, delivered in the forcefully exuberant style of a children’s nature documentary. Williams implicitly acknowledges the absurdity of projecting human experience onto an owl, an acknowledgement that gradually folds the narrative back onto her.

Despite the personal proximity of events, which seeps through in brief but heartbreaking moments of vulnerability, Williams is a warm and involving presence, effortlessly recruiting her audience to take part in some of the show’s sillier sequences. One such scene involves us all standing up and flapping our arms, feeling at once daft and oddly joyous. The participation can at times seem clumsy and slightly detached from the piece as a whole, but perhaps this dislocation is fitting. We are kept at arm’s length from the experience of depression, itself an isolating illness. The most powerful point in the narrative arrives when Puffball and his human carer look at one another, recognising what the other is, but neither can hear the other’s words. In one devastating moment, connection is suggested, attempted and cruelly denied.

The city claims another one

The industrious Greg McKlaren has moved to Berlin. Here’s a little video of us performing Symphony for Audience and Performer at CPT last year.

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So we finally did it. It is a very strange thing to walk into the shoes of a performer who you’ve enjoyed watching closely for so many hours. It was a large leap to make and a scary one, to admit maybe there was a braver way of doing this show, that maybe it would work better if I accepted the piece as being clearly autobiographical.

With thanks to the Arts Council’s Grants for the Arts and to BAC we were able to have a go at making what we thought would be a better show. With the help of director Alex Swift, whose fresh eyes helped navigate a new approach to the material, Puffball has become the show it seems to have  been destined to be. This is my first piece of autobiographical work and I feel really lucky that it has been given this space to become what it now is.

Christopher Brett Bailey (who previously performed the piece) came to see it on Saturday and gave us his important stamp of approval.

I am hugely excited to see where this show can now go. We will develop it for a run at The Yard in September and then back to BAC in the Spring.

Images from the scratch performance of PUFFBALL at BAC in June.

Photographs by Paul Blakemore.

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Pissing into the wind: Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’

The Bride and The Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns
Mise en scène by Philippe Parreno

The Barbican Art Gallery 14 February 2013 – 9 June 2013

There is something particularly funereal in looking at Duchamp’s urinal, or rather one of its dozen 60s replicas now placed reverently under a box of museum glass at the Barbican. This major landmark of 20th century art, an icon of the avant-garde, the ‘anti-art’ movement, lies like a dead Pope whose death mask hints, not unhappily, at the self-knowledge that his time and therefore his religion might just be up. If, like Brian Eno or South African artist Kendell Geers, you were to be caught actually urinating into Duchamp’s Fountain, there are an unusually large number of Barbican ushers (heavies) who would make you feel that your ‘chance’ response to the art work was definitely not the right one and anyway it’s already been done.

More than any other piece of art I’ve seen, Duchamp’s Fountain is unequivocally a heavy bulk of cultural history. There it is. He chose it. He authored it ‘R Mutt’ and he made it art. He saw its humour and beauty and irreverence. It is heralded as enabling minimalism, conceptualism, performance art and just about every other significant development in art of the past half century. I get ready to say hello and pay my dues. Yet here it sits as musty and retro as an aardvark’s head amongst the taxidermied spoils of the Natural History Museum while all around the glass boxed mausoleum the rest of the exhibition tries desperately hard to be ‘alive’. Standing there with my museum guide, being ‘scored’ around the space by a constant soundtrack of Cage and Parreno, all I want is for Duchamp’s drag persona, Rrose Selavy, to appear behind a door and ask to share a cigarette with me – but she’s gone and so is he.

Performers sculpt their work from the stuff of human life, i.e. the body and all that it contains. It is directly connected to the artist and can therefore not be removed nor sold as a separate entity. There is mutual consent that Lawrence Olivier’s stage performances are gone now that the man is gone. There is a mutual consent that performance, like Shakespeare’s plays, comes alive in the moment of its incarnation. They exist within life and so ascribe to the absolutes of that mortal coil- they are part of Time’s detritus. As the most famous work from the artist heralded as being the godfather of performative disciplines merging with the visual arts, Fountain, is all the more remarkable in its inertness. It is stubbornly immobile, heavy and corpse like. Therefore how extraordinary, that as I make my way out of the gallery and into the street, this heavy lump of porcelain does begin ever so slowly to sway. Buoyed by its conceptual provocations the white lump steps out a mocking dance increasingly as vital and alive as the heaving veins of the dancers who I’d previously watched strain in the next room. That smug white block stolen from a public toilet is going to outlive us all. Ah Rrose Selavy, you clever little devil you.

Sylvia Plath

As part of the South Bank festival on Sylvia Plath I was asked to write a little bit about my first response to her poems.

We all heard about ‘ the oven’- haunted by it even. An iconic image of what exactly? A bright woman at the end of her ability to cope? The tragedy of the lack of care for the mentally ill? I was scared to read Sylvia Plath. We were at the same university, she was a woman and so was I and I’d fallen in love with a writer too. Why did I know so much about her life before I’d actually sat with her poems? What if her words spat at me through the pages and I was pushed down into a place full of too many shadows? However one day I did sit with her and the oven disappeared, in fact the chair and table I was sat at disappeared and I was alone in such a clear and vivid poetic world that I didn’t come out of it until hours later. I felt I was reading a poet who was talking to me about something vital and I felt simultaneously repulsed and enraptured. She was more ‘a woman’ than any writer I’d ever read, and perhaps am yet to read.

I learnt how to mimic her voice in the reading of Daddy, revelling in her anglo american lilt and the beautiful tension in her throat. The way she articulates ‘do’ in the first stanza still makes my stomach flip with joy.

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

She became a sort of totem, a totem for the audacity and sharpness of truth. These poems didn’t float amongst daffodils, they sweated and heaved their way through the tumults of the mind. Her poems hold all the ugly messy strangeness of being alive, along with the paper thin delicateness of it. Her imagery is so vital and strong that it is never figurative, rather her metaphors live and breathe and as the reader you are the receiver of their punches or their exhalations. For this reason Plath inspired me hugely as an actress- her words fly like an arrow toward the perfect and precise meeting point of meaning and image. It is only right that she is still being celebrated.