Meditations on Space


Meditations on Space: Talking to Optik

Author: Jackie Smart


This article first appeared in BST Journal

Early this year, I spent some time with Optik while they were creating their production Space for the Camden Centre, a large Art Deco civic hall. Performed on 18th and 19th February, Space involved 6 performers (the largest number in an Optik production to date) working with a sound and a video artist. Given that Optik’s work is improvisatory and relies very heavily on the performers’ interactions, the space I was particularly interested in exploring was that between the performers themselves. I hoped to discover more about the company’s creative process through observation of their informal interactions and discussions during rehearsals. Optik allowed me to record their rehearsal and post-performance discussions during January and February and the video clips included in this paper are brief extracts from these discussions.

In using such conversations as a basis for the analysis of process, I am drawing on Halliday’s concept of language as social semiotic. For Halliday, language is ‘a shared meaning potential’. It ‘arises in the life of the individual through an ongoing exchange of meanings with significant others’ and is both ‘a means of reflecting on things [and of] acting on things’ (1978:1). Thus language not only helps us to understand the world around us, but actively creates our perceptions of that world, and it does so in an interactive context. Levelt points out that conversation is ‘a highly contextualised form of language use’ (1998:30). There is, first, the ‘participant context’, which requires the speaker to ‘tune his talk to the turns and contributions of other persons involved’ and to ensure that it remains ‘relevant to the ongoing interaction’ (30) and, second, the ‘intentional context’, which means that there is always an active purpose for speech, it is intended either to achieve something or to act upon another person in some way (31). In these terms, the conversations which take place during rehearsal have a dual purpose (or intention): the articulation of experience helps the speaker both to understand what has happened within the sensory world of the rehearsal and to create it. In other words, the translation which occurs between speech and action is a two-way process. It is important to emphasise that this is an interactive process, one in which the participants understand and create together. Thus, their group conversations reflect the multiplex nature of the rehearsal experience.

I have deliberately avoided using a formal interview structure. Although there are points where I ask specific questions, for the most part, the discussions you see took place within the ordinary rehearsal process, and thus include much that the formal interview leaves out. The interview structure require practitioners to construct and express their experience in a linguistic form, which is removed from that which constitutes the rehearsal/performance itself. The interview is linear, it seeks coherence and edits out the loops and digressions, gaps and elisions, apparent irrelevances, anecdotes, associations, obscure codes and non-verbal expressions of verbal conversation. In translating the discursive event of the interview into written form, we actually erase what might be a very revealing connection between patterns of informal, interactive speech and the forms of creative activity which take place in the rehearsal room.

Listening to Optik talk about what they had just experienced in a rehearsal, a run, a performance, I often got the sense that their conception of it was evolving as they spoke. As you will see in the video clips, a lot of what is said is not, in a linguistic sense, coherent or articulate, but it is, in an expressive sense, eloquent. People’s utterances are peppered with hesitations, ‘ums’ and ‘ers’, which represent a search for the right word or phrase. Often a particularly thorny debate will be abandoned and then revisited at a later point, as if time is needed for linguistic comprehension to percolate. The terms of Optik’s shared vocabulary, those by which they define their creative world, are developed slowly and with some difficulty. This difficulty is actually fundamental to understanding both process and performance. What we see in an Optik performance is a series of negotiations undertaken between performers in the moment. When a performer makes an improvisational ‘offer’, they do not know whether it will be accepted, refused or somehow developed or transformed. They do not even know for sure that it will be understood. There are moments of harmony, moments of conflict and moments of confusion or misinterpretation. The discussions shown here reflect that pattern of negotiation and thus include miscommunication and argument as well as agreement. The interactivity of the discussion mirrors the interactivity of the performance, it is a process of trying to communicate and understand each other – as is the performance – and, as such, it is developmental, multiple and in flux.

I focus on two interconnected levels of negotiation which I found particularly fascinating. The first is one which I will call a negotiation of language – an area of exploration in which the performers attempt to establish a shared vocabulary, a mutual understanding of the ‘terms of engagement’. This is inherently connected to the second level, which I will call a negotiation of rules. In an improvisational context, this refers to the balance which must be achieved between spontaneous response in the moment and the necessity to structure a performance. On both these levels, the process of negotiation I observed was often conflicted and included uncertainty and insecurity. The tensions generated in performance are reflected in discussion, but the openness is too. My perception of the company’s creative process is that of a series of questions asked, in public, to which no definite answers are previously assumed. This is, for the audience, part of the work’s appeal. It places the performers in a dangerous place, one where they risk exposure. We, as audience members, watch them seek their resolution. We are voyeurs, looking inside a very intimate process in which individuals must respond directly to each other on a personal level, without benefit of character or any predetermined narrative to lean on or hide behind. Such work demands and creates mutual openness and trust between the performers and the fact that they were so willing to allow me to record their informal conversations is an indication of the underlying confidence they have in their work, which underpins, indeed enables, their forceful and rigorous interrogation of their own creative process.


This discussion took place at the first rehearsal for Space. Director, Barry Edwards, is giving some feedback after an hour-long improvisation. One of the performers, Jerry, is not present at this rehearsal.


The discussion revolves around the negotiation of an improvisatory principle. What is at issue is, on the face of it, something relatively simple – the number of ‘actions’ that should be allowed to occur in performance at any one time. Barry’s concern is with the structural dynamic of the piece and his own position is itself conflicted. On the one hand, with these five performers, the principle of not introducing a third action is ‘working’ because it is having the effect of moving the performance along at a good pace. On the other, he is concerned about the fact that the tendency of the absent performer to walk for long stretches of time might slow the pace of the transitions from action to action if this principle is sustained. The performers’ uncertainty about this principle is revealing. Were there more than two actions taking place or not? Does standing still count as an ‘action’? Does it count as an action in some contexts and not others? For some the flexibility of the principle is acceptable, for others, the lack of definition creates insecurity. The references to ‘picking up on someone’s act’ reveal another area of confusion. Does this create strength or is it just ‘imitating’, and is imitating too much like ‘acting’? There are disagreements on all these points and these are not finally resolved at this stage, but rather, left open for further exploration.

The debate is revisited in a discussion which takes place after the ‘dress run’ at the Camden Centre on the afternoon before the first performance of Space.


Here Alison and Jennifer struggle to reach a form of expression which can accommodate their very different perspectives on what has occurred in performance. It is not easy for them to balance the personal factors that affected their responses to one another’s actions with their reflective understanding of the dynamic of the run as a whole, which evolves as the discussion progresses. They initially perceive their miscommunication in performance as a problem, but as the debate continues, the company realises that it need not necessarily be interpreted in this way. Barry recognises that some degree of conflict between the performers is necessary, that their dilemmas and difficult choices are interesting to the audience. He introduces the idea of a metaphorical ‘either, or’, rather than a definite resolution (the performers can either ‘pass the baton’ or pursue the challenge, ‘you run, you bastard’). Hannah’s comment that it ‘would never cross [her] mind’ to consciously think in terms of rules during a performance is telling in this context. The discussion enables the performers to understand that the ‘rules’ are always in process and always contextual and that this is part of what gives the performance its risk factor. They are the performance – and they have to continually negotiate the ground between the self in the moment and the performance over time.


The next is actually two separate phases of discussion which I have brought together. They both took place after the first performance of Space at the Camden Centre, but there was a ten minute gap between Jerry’s original description of his ‘memorable moment’ and Barry’s return to the topic.


This returns us to the question of context. Jerry’s description of his ‘moment’ is hesitant, questioning and full of qualifications, as if he is uncertain about whether his analysis will be acceptable to the rest of the group. In reaching for a way of describing his experience, he is articulating his own understanding of it, but he is also very ready to accept that this is not necessarily a shared understanding. Rather than being unitary and discreet, the performance is multiple – made up of different, sometimes contrasting perspectives – and also built up in layers over time. There is an indication here too of how a certain level of tension between performers fuels the work. Jerry’s description of his long spin is characterised as a ‘fight’, from which his side (Hannah and Jennifer) ‘defected’, abandoning him. He is not shy of revealing his own somewhat aggressive response to this, (‘right, I can do this for as long as I like.’) As an audience member, watching this moment in performance, I found it exciting. It was evident that the other performers were tired and that Jerry was, to use Barry’s phrase from earlier, deliberately, ‘pushing’ them. In the discussion, Hannah laughs at Jerry’s turn of phrase, perhaps in acknowledgement of the fact that this is something familiar. In earlier rehearsal conversations, she had shown something of the same feisty impulse, laughingly describing some of her own quarrelsome responses to her co-performers’ improvisational overtures.


The final example is very brief and, I believe, illustrates the deep level of mutual understanding which underpins the kind of open debate seen in previous clips. Before the performance at the Camden Centre began, while the audience were finding their seats at the tables set out around the periphery of the hall, as the performers were walking around the edges of the space or greeting friends, a young boy, who had come in with his parents, started to run around the performance area. He slid across the floor on his stomach, lay on his back, rolled, ran into the ‘offstage’ area behind the screens, called out as he ran with his arms out like an aeroplane. He swiftly discovered that his movements were being captured, transformed and projected, which encouraged him to experiment further. The young boy’s actions set the performance in a particular context. I, for one, could not help but watch the consequent performance with his ‘play’ in mind, the freedom and exuberance of it, his unrestrained delight in exploring every dimension of the space. His excitement in this pre-performance stage contrasted with his evident boredom during the performance itself, which seemed to stem largely from the fact that he wanted to get up and join in, or at least to interact with the performers, but was told by his embarrassed parents to stay still and be quiet.

At one point during the performance, Jerry stood directly in front of this little boy and held his gaze.


Simon’s and Jerry’s rueful understanding that the child would ‘always win’ demonstrates a profound understanding of what Optik’s work is all about. In seeking to “strip away the usual factors involved in deciding about moving – habits, patterns, aesthetic, rhythm” and thereby to “respond unconsciously” (Warr, 2003: 133), they are attempting to recover the freedom of the child-self (‘we’d better enter his world’), but recognise that they can do so only in negotiation with the adult- self which they now are. When Jerry uses the word “upstaging”, everyone laughs, accepting that, while this is not a part of the normal Optik vocabulary, it is a part of the deeper theatre vocabulary Optik wish to interrogate and challenge. This is no easy aim: they are working against their own earlier training, as well as against some deeply embedded audience expectations. Optik’s work is challenging in a very real sense: in challenging their audience, the company also challenge themselves as individuals, they challenge each other and they continually challenge and develop their own structural ‘rules’. Their verbal discussions reveal this ongoing process in ways which demonstrate its multiplex, intricate and profoundly interactive nature.



Halliday, M.A.K. (1979) Language as Social Semiotic: the social interpretation of language and meaning. London: Edward Arnold

Levelt, William J. M. (1998) Speaking: from intention to articulation. London: MIT Press

Optik in partnership with the Camden Centre and Total Theatre Network, Space (performance), Camden Centre, February 18th, 2004.

Warr, Tracey (2003) ‘A Moving Meditation on a Dead Line’, Performance Research Journal 8(4): 130-136

My thanks are due to:

Optik Director: Barry Edwards

Optik Performers: Clare Allsop, Simon Humm, Jeremy Killick, Jennifer Letwin, Hannah Seaton, Nam-Eun Song, Alison Williams-Bailey

Optik Sound Artist: Ben Jarlett

Optik Video Artist: Howie Bailey