Sighted Commentary

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Transcript of a discussion with a student group after a performance of Short Sighted. October 1982

 

Q: Where does the idea for a piece come from?

 

BE: That’s a good place to start. I bring a set of stimuli to the early rehearsal and we have discussions about the new piece. For One Spectacle I used a folk tale from the Chinese called The Two Travellers and one song from a Schumann song cycle. In Second Spectacle, to contrast with the mood and imagery of our first piece, I turned to the early 20th century, the Futurists and Mahler and so at the outset of our work on Short Sighted I introduced two contrasting artefacts based on notions of love; Beaumarchais’ The Barber of Seville, and new wave French films, in particular the work of Jean-Luc Godard.

As with earlier productions, the notion of a contrast is crucial. It’s more than a mere contrast though, it has to be something that is held in tension, like black and white, a polar opposite. What attracted me in the first instance to these two starting points was this tension of opposites. The Barber of Seville is a highly stylised piece of classic theatre, dealing with an archetypal set of characters and situations. Godard, and the new wave on the other hand were exponents of a ‘new realism’ towards love and towards the feminine. I felt that the pair of examples provoked a very basic set of tensions, that of the artistic view of the world and the realistic. The fact that the Barber of Seville was in its day seen as a ‘realistic’ piece and that Godard made a point of exposing his artistic technique in his films added to the piquancy of the relationship between the two. Extracting the essential qualities of the contrast is an important task, and an early notion that stayed throughout was the contrast between the fantasy based, almost Utopian approach to love, and the alienated, conflict based view of the same thing. From here, something of the ultimate structure of the piece begins to take shape, since I envisaged if possible a ‘newwave’ Godardian interpretation of the Beaumarchais’ piece and a Utopian fantasy based expression of the realistic view of love. The Barber of Seville has a very ornate quality, the object of love that cannot be reached. The setting of Seville is also ‘extravagant’, and if you look at paintings and drawings of early set designs, the ornateness, an essential artificiality, is paramount with the balcony, windows etc. painted onto back drops. The basic perspective was two dimensional. In the New Wave and the realistic film movement I felt I had found something that almost turned the Barber of Seville inside out. I suppose you could sum up the quality of this tension as Jeanne Moreau playing Rosine; two aspects of the expression of what is held to be the female character.

 

Q: Do you use improvisation to explore these ideas?

 

BE: We didn’t use improvisation at all. I find it a difficult tool to work with, despite the fact that it is felt to be such a common practice. There is too much detail in my work to find improvisation that much use. The development of the fine points of imagery, dialogue, music and design is too exact a science. The tiniest detail can be crucial. I suppose I am saying that I can see a place for improvisation in a very general sense, but not as a tool for composition. Would you ask a writer, for example, if they used improvisation? In the end, in a practical sense, all that remained of concrete aspects of any actual Godard material were the black coated figure that Heather Ackroyd plays, and the overall feeling of Frenchness that pervades; the Figaro newspaper, the reference to tri-colour in some of the props and the design. While on the question of nationality, there is a lovely melange of French; Beaumarchas’ original play was in French, and we used the oldest translation we could find which was Spanish. The play is set in Seville and Italian, Mozart’s opera from which we use the famous Aria. Add the fact that Mozart was Austrian and I am English and you have a real mix!

 

Q: Is it the juxtaposition of incongruous elements that interests most in the choice of starting points?

 

BE: The question of incongruity is a very interesting idea. I start off with a view of the total piece, an over-concept if you like but on the way to creating the total piece, I am equally concerned, as a director, with the acting. Acting, for me, is the essential discipline, despite the pigeon hole of ‘visual theatre’ that gets applied to our work, mainly for quite understandable marketing reasons. I am not a visual artist turned director. I have always seen my main task as developing the appropriate style and approach for the actor and yet, despite the fact that the actor is the fulcrum of the action on stage, in terms of creating our work, the actor is not the starting point. And this is a big dilemma I have to face in the early stages of creating a new piece. It’s almost as if what the actors finally play on stage is only the reflection of everything that has happened; or you could say that the meaning of the piece arises almost by accident. So what you’re trying to get the actor to do is quite interesting. I want them to be alive on stage, to be motivated, to energise the part they are playing, and yet at the same time not to locate the centre of the piece, by that I mean the source of meaning, in themselves or behind the mask, hidden. This is not an easy task for the actor, but this is where the question of incongruity arises, between the intention of the individual actor and the overall intention of any one moment in the piece, which of course depends on the relationship of all the elements at that time, the music, the design, staging etc. But the actor’s instinct is to bury a meaning inside themselves, saying to the audience, if you look at me hard enough you will find out what is going on. My pieces do not arise from the revelation of character, and so this acting technique is not applicable. It is almost like saying that the actor has the function of a prop, but in a stage structure where props and their function are extremely significant in their own right. This underlines the difficulty with regard to improvisation since the actor is not the starting point, and the tension in the piece does not arise from the conflict between two intentions inside one actor, a mode of traditional naturalistic drama. Rather, the conflict lies between the basic components of a theatre moment, which normally cohere to produce meaning based on character, intention and plot, but which in my work are set against one another.

 

Q: What about dialogue?

 

BE: This has its own particular function in our work; more often than not dialogue, as such, becomes a series of monologues. If you like, a series of monologues in search of a meaningful dialogue! So far I have been unable to incorporate to any large extent original dialogue, in other works to include the function of the writer. Since what I am working with is so concerned with meaning and the various distortions that theatrical expression offers, I feel little need for a writer whose dialogue might threaten to impost an unnecessary, or worse an uninteresting coherence and looking at it from the other angle, it is difficult to imagine the kind of variety of expressive conflicts that we manage to engender coming from the mind of one person, a writer. That said I’m not implying that it is impossible, Shakespeare was that kind of writer, but it is very rare. Originality has its own problems, and as the Greeks knew, you don’t need an original ‘plot’ to create theatre. In fact the quality of tradition, or classical quality is one I much admire and like to use, it allows the director to make their own contribution in a very succinct way. The actor too, is able to create a ‘role’ that is rather like a personal score running through the piece.

 

Q: How is the classical part of your piece approached in rehearsal?

 

BE: I like to use the image of the sculptor, and in this instance we start with a lump of clay called Barber of Seville, together with its associations, and start to mould, take away, adapt. One aspect of this process which is quite interesting is that the final shape of the piece need not emerge until very near the end of the rehearsal process. Like the sculptor who can decide on the last day of work to remove the head and so radically change the work in its final moments of creation. Unlike working to a set play which gradually and ineluctably unfolds, this approach calls for a very clear idea of what you are doing but also for a great deal of creative flexibility. In other words the final shape of what you are making will not be clear until it is finished. This is a very challenging way to work; it scares some people to death and it is very hard on actors, I admit that. In the case of Short Sighted I’ve decided very late on to remove all references and extracts from Godard, leaving only the work that had been based on his films, rather like chopping the head off your sculpture.

 

Q: How do you record what you are doing in rehearsal in order to arrive at a working script? How do you contruct your piece?

 

BE: The approach or tendency is to look at what we are doing and then say what comes next. That is look at the through line of the piece and work on what will be the best following moment at any one time. The other approach is to find something in a particular moment that has potential for expansion or development, without worrying where it might finally ‘fit in’ with the progression of the piece as a whole. The final running order of the piece is something, as I was saying just now, that can be decided upon very near the end of the rehearsal period. Something that throughout has always been at the beginning can be put at the end and so on. The lovers sequence is an example like that; it was always developed as a final image, but finally ended up near the beginning of the piece.

 

Q: So it is a question of building things up as you go along. Is this process a way of working that you have used all the time with Optik?

 

BE: There’s been a considerable refinement of it during the rehearsals for Short Sighted. It took eight or nine weeks of discussion and very open-ended rehearsal to create the basis of the piece, the actual structure, words, music and design, then a further three weeks in very tight rehearsal situation, blocking, pacing and so on.

 

Q: How do you actually set about working on a scene? Do you have a script?

 

BE: Well, in this case we had the script of the Barber of Seville of course, although we spent some time deciding which parts we wanted to use, which parts were ‘key’ parts as afar as our piece was concerned and we were pruning it down as much as we could. We reached a stage where for about two days we rejected the play altogether, but it crept back in! As far as the non-Barber scenes were concerned then it’s a different process. What I am looking for in a particular sequence, is something that has a relationship to what has preceded it but which in some way ‘teases’ the theatrical logic, the narrative logic to release the unexpected without straying into the illogical. Creating coherence, the narrative logic is easy; disrupting in a meaningful way is the difficulty. Actors can motivate any material and give a narrative coherence, and so you are able to fight against this to create the particular tension you are after. There is a big difference between defying theatrical logic or audience expectation and simply lacking it. Lacking logic is abstract theatre. I still want the audience to relate to the actor, to be able to locate empathy there and yet to be puzzled by it. As if the spectator might say if I were to believe in that actor it would all make sense, but there is something in that actor I cannot trust. Does he mean what he says? Of course you have got to believe that the actor is somewhere and that they are relating to the other actors. It is not the relationships that should be puzzling in themselves; rather there is a lack of something. The actors are not giving you the complete picture; maybe the final piece of information required has to be supplied by the spectators themselves. And what is it that taps people’s basic feeling about themselves and others, which is what I want to reach. You could say this is rather a lyrical idea, even romantic, but I want to include the intensity of emotion, empathy while setting intellect an awesome challenge.

 

Q: Do your pieces carry any message?

 

BE: I don’t have a separate message for each piece. Everything I’ve done including work prior to Optik with Ritual Theatre for example, again involving music, seems to be aiming at a universal statement rather than a specific one each time or you could say I’m trying to say the same thing each time, but using different means. Rather than say different things using the same techniques. And the ‘statement’ or meaning, fundamental meaning, of the work I’ve done comes down to something about the ‘human condition’. If it doesn’t sound absurd I see myself as a Shakespearean rather than a Jonsonian going each time for an artistic statement of universal applicability.

 

Q: Is the humour in your work incidental, or very important?

 

BE: I see it as very important. It is a humour that doesn’t denigrate or make a specific comment, but which aims at a mixture of pathos and comedy. This is often a tightrope as in the old soldier scene. The line between sentimentality which could cause offence and controlled pathos is a difficult one to draw and calls for great skill from the actor. Music is also important in the process of getting the audience to see things in a different way. You can cover a scene with music and certain elements of theatrical logic particularly narrative ones are set aside. It is of course a great aid to emotional involvement. I have always used music.

 

Q: When did Cornelia Parker’s design get involved and how was her work incorporated with yours?

 

Connie worked with us from the outset. We knew that she wanted to work in metal. She produced lots of drawings during the early rehearsals and luckily she never made anything that we didn’t eventually use. Although, at one stage, we did send her away to make the Eiffel Tower and found we had scrapped the idea a few days later! Certain things were given or her, like they were for use, for example the Barber of Seville and so ornate balconies were in from the word go so she was able to get on with that. But the crucial question of the correct ‘opposite’ for the Barber, the turning inside out I mentioned earlier posed particular problems for Connie. We had to wait for it to emerge during rehearsal, but Connie’s final design had to incorporate elements of Barber and the ‘other’.

 

Q: What is the relationship between narrative, or plot and the piece as a whole?

 

BE: Right at the beginning of a rehearsal process you lay down a broad genetic frame work, if you like, to borrow from the field of human development, and the details, the fingers, toes etc. come later. From the narrative point of view what you lay down at the beginning remains, lingers on.

 

Q: Even if you discard elements?

 

BE: Yes, the memory is still there, the basic chromosome pattern casts its shadow, like the French element in Short Sighted, the origins of which, the new wave film, the Godard approach do not feature as a major element, they have disappeared. But the narrative remains only the possibility of linear interpretation, one way of trying to read meaning into the piece, an aspect. This is not easy, you have to wean people off the expectation of linear meanings, which leaving a possible plot or narrative there as a kind of guide rope to reassure the audience.

 

Q: As well as Godard, and Barber of Seville, there is also the element of English Imperialism. How did that emerge?

 

BE: How it emerged is difficult to say, you chip away at something and an idea arrives you think you can do something with; but we wanted a location that was totally different from the location of Barber; somewhere exterior, hot, English seemed appropriate. We also wanted a threesome relationship that looked as though it was tied by some long historical link to the Barber of Seville. So in that ‘Imperial’ scene there are little messages, like the faint and the way that Rosine manages to be in control of Figaro being matched by the man and woman in the later scene, and the Count figure of course, still interested in the woman.

 

Q: Where did the missionary dialogue come from?

 

BE: That monologue is a collage of old novels, jumbled about to make a kind of sense. We avoided anything that we thought people might recognise and once you are down to that kind of detail it is not so difficult as you already have the ‘gap’ for it in the piece. It was the last thing to go into that scene, although from the spectator’s point of view it has a central role. This gives rise to that strange quality I was talking about earlier. The actor’s job is to motivate it as though it was desperately important but that’s not too difficult.

 

Q: And what about the location?

 

BE: We talked about this a lot and one of the early ideas was that it was a scrap yard using the metal that also formed the Barber’s ornate set. So we worked on a scrap metal junk yard run by an awesome female character. Once you’ve got that situation, then you need activity and the search for activity is quite crucial and what the woman was doing in this yard was posing problems. I wanted it to have great significance for the servant character and yet apparently have not real import at all. I think that is an important structural device that I use, taking an activity or an object that has no real value for the audience and yet investing it with enormous significance for the characters and the other way around! What I want to avoid is creating mystery on stage, say in a character, using conventional mysterious gestures etc. What I wanted in the action was something that had a very mundane, functional quality so that she could on one level have just been washing, and yet at the same time suggesting more possibilities. Possibly she was performing these actions in some secret code that we could only guess at and breaking the code would reveal the significance. So the mystery comes from sensing a code behind the actions which on the surface are mundane but not being able to read it, but you can see what problems that poses for the actor. It’s not much use the actor asking what’s happening here. A kind of alienation is required, performing the actions with a detachment that kindles curiosity, which does remind me of the Brecht imperative, find the expected unexpected and find the familiar strange. That’s a very useful starting point, making the familiar look strange. There’s also elements of Beckett in there too obviously everything seems as though it is leading up to a significant revealing scene but never actually does. So when you ask what did happen it is difficult to say what it was.