Full version of interview conducted summer 2016 for the book Fifty Playwrights On Their Craft by Caroline Jester and Caridad Svich, published by Methuen Drama, November 2017.
Chris Goode is a writer, director, performer and musician, and lead artist of Chris Goode & Company. His diverse body of work has been seen in venues ranging from Sydney Opera House and Tate Modern to the most marginal spaces on the London fringe. His credits include four Fringe First award-winning shows: Men in the Cities, Monkey Bars, Kiss of Life, and (with Unlimited Theatre) Neutrino; he also won the Headlong/Gate New Directions Award for his radical version of Chekhov, ...SISTERS, at the Gate Theatre. Chris is a former artistic director of Camden People's Theatre and he now directs the all-male ensemble Ponyboy Curtis. He is the author of The Forest and the Field, a book on theatre and performance published by Oberon.
Caridad Svich: What is a playwright?
Chris Goode: I’m sure I won’t be the only respondent to this question to lament the cruelly deceptive homophony of ‘write’ and ‘wright’, which has done so much to cement the activity of playwrights (in the UK and US at least) unhelpfully within a literary tradition. As my friend, the actor Gemma Brockis, passionately insists: plays are not written, but wrought ― that is, worked: and the work of playwrighting may or may not involve writing ― or, for that matter, the ‘play’ object as we tend to understand it.
I’d like to consider the playwright to be the author/maker of play (or of the space for or container of play) rather than of a play. I like Handke’s thing, in The Long Way Round, where he contrasts the world of nature with the world of games. When you get to the end of a game, you say: “What next?” But nature continues, limitlessly. It may be true that play cannot extend itself without territorial boundaries, but one can, as a playwright, shape or inflect play without ever having to accept or concede to ‘the play’ in its commodity form.
Another way of articulating the same idea: these days I tell people that I don’t really make things: I make the space for things to happen in. That said, I don’t often call myself a playwright. Maybe I will, now.
CS: Making space for something to happen is central to the process! At all levels, whether you sit at a desk and write or come into a practice hall and work with movement, image and text ideas with a group of actors. I think the making of space for something to happen is akin to being alert to energies in a room, with a group of people, within yourself. That alertness – tuned-in quality, as it were – allows for the space to make/occur.
Does the audience influence your writing?
CG: This is wonderfully hard to track, but I’m inclined to say no. I’m quite sure, in a way, that it can’t. Audiences are specific groupings of people under particular conditions, in anticipation of and response to certain events. We struggle to meet them, especially as writers. Actors glimpse them, at best. The audience that attends a specific occasion is unique to it, and the next audience is its own separate entity. It makes no sense to talk of “the audience” in a generalised way. What we are talking about when we talk about “the audience” at the point when we are writing is, necessarily, our fear of the audience, our projection into the void where the audience will eventually convene.
There are, of course, moments of practical judgement that have to inform writing. Do I have to explain this reference? Do I need to signal this dynamic shift more clearly? (The one I try to expunge from my thinking: Will an audience get this?) My rule of thumb is that there’s no reason to suppose an audience is, generally, any less intelligent or informed than I am or my colleagues are: but I guess I will, sometimes, spell something out a bit more, just to be sure, if the fluency of communication in a passage feels crucial and I don’t want anyone to get hung up on something they think they may have misunderstood. Or, alternatively ― and perhaps more successfully ― I’ll make it fuzzier and more hospitable, so that an audience that completely understands what I’m getting at isn’t necessarily at an advantage over one that doesn’t.
CS: In the last two years or so, I have become somewhat obsessed with the audience. Not as predicator of event but increasingly how to “make space” again for their engagement and presence, without condescension or facile ways of pretending inclusiveness, but more to do with listening. How to listen? How to allow for spaces of listening/being to simply be? And therefore, allowing without expectation of result for an audience to co-exist with the art object and meet it and even complete it within its eternal incompletion (I think all art is unfinished). How does playwriting and the playwright fit into the digital age of storytelling?
CG: There is, to my mind, a profound, and not unproductive, tension here. The fundamentally intrinsic medium of theatre, it seems to me, is realtime, while the dynamic permissiveness of digital is predicated on nonlinearity. Perhaps the contemporary play-maker occupies a pivotal position at the crux of that tension. I remember being told as an undergraduate, by the director Ceri Sherlock, that the task of theatre makers of my generation would be to free ourselves from the tyranny of linear narrative; to some extent that’s still on the to-do list, twenty years on.
It is true that some of my works for theatre ― I’m thinking above all of Men in the Cities and Weaklings ― operate through a syntax that borrows heavily from the hypertextual, jump-cutting across layers of material and different orders of speculation and reality. There’s lots that storytellers can do now to harness the energy and sheer velocity of digital, even in the most rudimentary oral or literary formats. I also think we’re in desperate need of a much more fully developed ethics of the digital, and storytellers have an important role in sounding out those new relational maps. But maybe the burgeoning of digital forms will ultimately promote the divergence of play-making and storytelling as distinct disciplines? At any rate, theatre makers will still have to account, always, for the movement of time through their work.
CS: Do your ideas come from a sudden idea or conceit or are they more planned?
CG: Occasionally, it’s a sudden high-concept idea that comes like a lightning bolt, more or less fully formed. Monkey Bars, for example, came that way ― an unforeseen inspiration which took five minutes or less to unfold into its final shape, as I walked down a road in Oxford on my way to a gig. More usually, I’m suspicious of ideas that seem to be complete: I’ll often hang on to a proposition until something wholly or largely unconnected with it comes additionally into my head and some kind of exciting dissonance is produced.
For example, I really wanted to write a play for the fiftieth anniversary of the Windscale nuclear accident, but it didn’t have enough energy to it until I allowed it to rub up against an unconnected urge ― to write about the death of the film actor River Phoenix. You’re then frantically positing connections and torsions that might allow these two topics to coexist. The resulting play, Speed Death of the Radiant Child, contains ― or can’t quite wholly contain ― both those strands, for better or worse, and the strangeness of their entangling becomes, in a sense, the traction in the play, where the ‘drama’ would otherwise have been. I’m excited by complexity (because it seems to me to be blessedly true), and not least by moments where complexity is a product or function of the irrational being taken seriously.
CS: Can a playwright cross into other artforms?
CG: Certainly she can, although I generally feel more affectionate about makers who are loyally dedicated to theatre and aren’t constantly looking around for something else to graduate into. I think partly my question is about that act of ‘crossing’ and the adjacencies it might imply, the idea of strolling out of one field and into the next. For reasons that I think I’ve already adumbrated, I don’t accept the common supposition that theatre sits right next to radio, or to film, or tv. I think theatre has more in common with gardening, or suicide.
CS: How do you wish to/explore modes and strategies within the art-making of engaging audience - from the development process and/or one of production? In your case, I know this question opens up many other questions - whether you are working with and from verbatim interviews, adapting a source text (like your Madman, based on Gogol's Diary of a Madman) or riffing on the work of an existing author (the Dennis Cooper project Weaklings), building a piece from dream work and journaling, and variations therein, and also whether you are working primarily as text-builder and director and/or performer?
CG: Actually I think across all those process models, the intention is consistent, and it more or less aligns with my previous answer regarding audiences.
The work, first and foremost, is for me. There are plenty of ways in which that’s immediately not true, but my experience is of coming into my own relationship with an idea or a set of ideas, within which is embedded a question or a set of questions; I then want to find a way of working with those questions, which will very likely involve collaborating with others (who may or may not also be professional theatre artists); and there is a will and a need for such a process to be open to witness and critique. To that extent, there are multiple concentric audiences, but no distinctive or coherent “intended audience”, except by dint of the industrial situation of the making process. (The exception to this would be projects where the initiation of the work is external to me or my company and where the idea of the audience is formally embedded in that impetus: for example, I’m just at this moment starting to think through a project that, if it happens, will be a commission specifically designed to engage an audience of elders.)
None of this should be taken to suggest that I don’t care about audiences’ experience of my work. I think as searchingly as I can about how the work is held out to audiences, how it invites them in, what relations it offers or hopes for, how it listens for different kinds of response. Very often the work is more-or-less explicitly predicated on a call to action or a clear sense in which the audience completes and clinches the action of the work (not infrequently by becoming active participants in it). But I find the absent, hallucinated future-audience impossible to think about critically ― and, actually, find it distasteful and politically dubious even to attempt to do so; and so the relationship with the audience is something that opens up only at that point in the process where the doors are unlocked to let it in. I’m very interested in creating systems and opportunities for that point to be pushed as early in the process as possible: for example, through our ‘Open House’ format, in one variation of which, an active, participating audience might be invited in for a day of conversation and collaborative making during the first week of rehearsals, say. But even in this case, this is more a question of destabilizing the process for the benefit of the designated makers, bringing in unpredicted points of inquiry or patterns of response. The audience is, in this sense, a helpful noise-generating machine.
The purpose, ultimately, is selfish. I want, or I feel the need, to create spaces to live in ― kinds of headspace or emotional space, as well as rooms or constructed environments that support certain species of dialogue or collaborative play ― that sit in a reassuringly dissident relationship to the supposed facts and protocols of quotidian city life. I’ve said before (though I’m never sure exactly how seriously I intend this) that what I’m trying to make in my practice is ‘real life ― but a bit better’. I’m trying to create for myself and for the people I love and am interested in (which eventually includes audiences ― why not?!) an inhabitable space, with more breathable air and a quality of attentiveness that the outside world can seldom nurture: if it did, I’d think of something else to do.
CS: There’s been a move in my work toward on the one hand, increased dissatisfaction with what is expected of, say, a play, when the word ‘play’ is invoked, and on the other hand, an embrace of the historical sense of play (which includes the masque play). But the twinned positions here circle, for me, around urgency and art, trouble and art, and theatre-making’s job to re-awaken how we see/feel/hear/touch in real time in relationship to a world in crisis or positioned at continual states of crisis politically and economically. How you handle the matter of urgency and trouble in your work. may wish to talk about several pieces here perhaps as a way of comparing and contrasting experiences you have had, say, building MEN IN THE CITIES, GOD/HEAD, MONKEY BARS, STAND, and MADMAN?
CG: There’s been quite a strong shift for me in recent years around these questions. In pieces like The Forest and the Field and Keep Breathing my aim was to create for the audience a ‘safe’ space to dwell in while questions hopefully arose from the work, concerning the whole category of the social, and the ways in which radical change might become possible without that potential immediately becoming occluded by defensiveness and fear. It is both a strength and a weakness of those pieces that they attempt to foster a fairly gently tremulating serenity, a sense of movement arguably less like revolution and more like head massage. This partly has to do with my role as ‘storyteller’ in those spaces: I present myself as a trustworthy guide to a reimagined future of which, I tacitly imply, we don’t need to be afraid.
From GOD/HEAD onwards, I suppose I am starting to strain at that leash. The ‘safe haven’ of the work feels like it can’t be an end in itself; on the contrary, what I’m putting in place is a set of frames and crash-mats that support the idea of risk-taking and jeopardy and the attempting of difficult moves. Only a more turbulent scene, in which my role is not just to embrace but to agitate, can permit the ethical questions embedded in the form of the work to come through dynamically and unsettlingly.
Sometimes, it’s true, I’ve used the gentler ‘host’ voice in the service of misdirection: for example, in The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley, I tell a story about (essentially) a romantic relationship between a young gay teenager and an eccentric middle-aged man who’s clearly in to boys; but the magic realist tenor of the work and the trustworthiness of the storytelling voice I employ always tend to neutralise what in other circumstances might be, for some audiences, a pretty disquieting narrative. In part, five years down the line, Men in the Cities, my next fictional storytelling piece, is energised by a determination to refuse that voice that soothes as it provokes: and it’s no accident that, among many strands, that piece presents a much more confusing and volatile picture of a sexually fixated boy and any number of confounded older men in his orbit.
With the exception I guess of my 2008 play Infinite Lives, about an agoraphobic porn addict, Men in the Cities is perhaps the first time since Past the Line, Between the Land in 2003 (a devised piece responding to the UK’s baleful involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan) where I start to want to dig down past the (to me) appealingly liquid, paradigmatically queer ethical speculations of the work, and really engage with the most fundamental root-position moral questions around patriarchy and capitalism, and around individual freedoms versus state oversight. I’m currently writing a play called Freedom which pressurizes these questions still further, particularly in the half-light of current strains of accelerationist thought. This turn from ethical thinking-aloud to moral excavation feels in a certain sense untheatrical, but in a way that I like. Paul Goodman says: “What you needn’t watch ― for instance, what you can read ― is not part of a play, and too much of it kills a play.” In that sense, subjecting a scripted play to a raft of possible moral orientations is a kind of self-harm or masochism, which, again, can have the function of drama in an otherwise largely postdramatic terrain. As Ron Sexsmith sings: “How can this song survive?”
CS: A great deal of the discussion amongst theatremakers in the US seems to inevitably circle round to issues regarding capital - art's relationship to capital -...from how much admission may cost for a show and therefore what does that mean about who can "afford" the work,...to the site of performance (if it is in a venue, say, that operates as a key signifier of capital in a city center, and what values does the venue represent in a community),...to the making of work itself and how is it made and who is making it (hierarchies of value placed upon the "legit" or "pro" vs. "amateur" and "not-legit" - issues of legitimacy and art)...to the class divisions within the artistic community (CEOS of venues who make upwards of a half a million dollars USD salary a year alongside artistic directors and/or ensemble company leaders who struggle to sustain an operating budget). As artists what might you offer as strategies or advice or methodologies you may wish to share about making and producing work that stops capitalism's in its tracks?
CG: As politically-motivated makers, one of our first responsibilities is a steadfast understanding that the work we produce does not, and will not, stop capitalism, for all that it may take as its righteous task the creation of spaces and experiences that avowedly resist or reject capitalist ideology or simulate (or arguably even construct “for real”) noncapitalist modes of existence and social action. Nor should we underestimate theatre’s capacity for holding open such spaces in ways that are meaningful in our lives: but theatre can only ever give us glimpses, can only serve as our playground, our testbed. We come to theatre in part to determine how we will live when we leave its temporary shelter and go back to base.
But our struggle with the forces of capitalism ― and not least, with aggressive neoliberalism disguised as smiling beneficence ― is never less than instructive, and we should advertise the facts of that struggle as boldly as we dare. We should talk more openly about the economic conditions and contradictions of our work, not only in general but specifically in elucidating the circumstances of each production: wages, rents, levels of subsidy, material costs. This seems like it might go hand-in-hand with what now feels like the best practice around admission costs: the introduction of Pay What You Decide policies. (There are plenty of encouraging signs now that PWYD need not lead to a drop in revenue.)
Makers also need to be vigilant in their understanding and articulation of their own situation. For many of us engaged in a perpetual struggle to pay the rent and mitigate the most deleterious effects of our own precariousness, it is hard sometimes also to see ourselves as agents of aggressive gentrification and lubricators of all kinds of dubious cultural-economic channels. When we do unpaid or underpaid labour ― or ask it of others ― we may be staking out a radical space of non-participation in a market system, or sharpening our generosity and our creative optimism into a lethal weapon we can turn on ourselves; or, most likely, both. When we negotiate a pop-up venue or a community project with a property developer, we may be able to bring brilliant new productive energies into a depressed and stultified situation, and amplify voices that would otherwise go unheard; or we may end up sucked into a project of harmful validation, helping to clothe naked greed and exploitation with our well-intended art; or, almost inevitably, both.
“Clean hands do no worthwhile work,” says J. H. Prynne. We can acknowledge our complicity and entanglement without sinking into despondent paralysis. Our obligations are to transparency; to the joyous demolition of any barriers to entry over which we have decisive control; and to being ready to listen respectfully when those we hurt in the course of our work have the courage to call us on it.
CS: for those coming up in the field, what advice would you have for sustaining a life in the arts, especially during these times of economic austerity?
CG: I don’t think I want to start offering advice on something I’m not sure I’m doing all that successfully myself. In so far as I’ve been at all resilient personally, I think it has something to do with building long relationships from a base of integrity and trust, and something to do with trying to stay genuinely curious about what younger artists are up to. But I don’t see much evidence that these are the values of the mainstream establishment. So maybe my advice is, don’t get hypnotised by the establishment. “To hell with the mainstream,” says Utah Phillips. “It’s polluted. What purifies the mainstream? The little tributaries up in the wilderness...”
The UK government’s austerity agenda has ruined ― literally destroyed ― hundreds of thousands of blameless lives: but for most artists I know, I think austerity is just a frowny word for the cockroach existence we have always had to carve out. I’m not sure it feels like “a life in the arts”, to me. That smacks of champagne receptions and quadrille-like interviews on BBC Radio 4. I try to lead an unshowily dissident life, the queer-as-fuck life of a post-punk rapscallion, the kind of life that so many of my heroes led. I don’t have their courage but I do have their example.
CS: I am deeply interested in the idea that the 'small' or what may be perceived as a 'weak' voice in society actually can radiate out with the power of its own truth and integrity. Would love to hear your thoughts on this. On a more philosophical level.
CG: I think theatre is, first and foremost perhaps, a technology of weakness. Weakness is the index of its appeal to intimacy; and when, as it will, for various reasons, it sets its heart on spectacle, it doesn’t so much scale up as balloon out, so that its vulnerability remains permanently embedded in its condition. Those who seek to eliminate the faultline in theatre fundamentally misunderstand its nature. It is all faultlines: it is itself the faultline that we can introduce into other social configurations to make them ecstatically collapse.
I have been very influenced in recent years by John Holloway’s work on the idea of the ‘crack’: that captialism will not be overwhelmed, but undermined. Theatre is extraordinarily well-placed to author cracks in the ideological edifices that dominate our lives under capitalism.
And yes, I’m a fan, too, of smallness, and the ways in which the small can signify. For several years I collaborated with a performing artist, Jonny Liron, under the duo name Action one19: and much of what we did, we did behind the closed doors of an extremely marginal live/work warehouse space, just the two of us, each other’s audience ― or perhaps, more accurately, each other’s witness. Because the collaborative partnership was so small, and so intense, it could contain anything and everything we brought to it. It was intrepid and queer and, on the whole, exceedingly accurate. I would sometimes watch Jonny improvising an angry fractured text, or cutting his arm with a scalpel, or wilfully and romantically making his exposed asshole the centre of attention within the performance frame, and no one else would be present, and yet I’d feel quite justified in saying to him that what we were doing was the most important work being done anywhere at that time. Which in one sense will seem a new standard by which to measure vanity and delusion: but also it still rings true to me. If we truly believe ― as Jonny and I did ― that theatre is uniquely able to change a world that desperately needs changing; and that we are developing a theatrical vocabulary and syntax that is designed wholly and explicitly to help us create that change; and that we don’t know of any other project that so insistently and urgently and unstintingly addresses that objective: then provided we find, at the right times, a way of starting to share the work with others, we are justified in thinking of our work as being exactly as important as all that. If nothing else, this gives the work a kind of altitude that most theatre and live art understandably refuses and even disdains. We save each other’s lives by saving the life of the work.
CS: There are two essential things we deal with in live performance: space and time. I would add also presence and absence. In what ways do you consider and reflect upon these four with each project you make with the evolving "band" of artists that come to be part of Chris Goode & Co? I am well aware that your body of work even prior to forming the company in 2011 is quite wide-ranging. I am certainly not asking you to document every piece! But perhaps speak to this question through reflections on perhaps two contrasting pieces?
CG: Thanks for this question! It’s good to be asked to come back to some first principles and examine them for signs of life...
As I’ve indicated above, for me the distinct fundamental here is time; theatre from which the time axis is removed would no longer be intelligible as theatre. And so this immediately gives rise to a complex set of questions about how we will be asked to read time, or read ourselves in time. I borrow very consciously from musical form, and from the technical lexicon of (especially poetic) prosody, to try to design for audiences an awareness of time passing. This might be about ideas to do with, say, syncopation (my 2004 show Escapology was informed by a quite extreme degree of syncopation, of a kind you might associate with, say, Thelonious Monk or Cecil Taylor), or recapitulation, in the way that so many of my favourite stand-ups will land call-backs in a way that feels not only delightful in its elegance but sort of freaky in what it suggests about how we create meaning for ourselves. The irreversible timeline of theatre immediately engages ideas about memory, and thus about culture and ideology; a show has a memory of its own, and a forgetfulness. I'm very often trying to keep pushing on: which shows up sometimes in the (apparently) crudest ways: for example, by quite often mounting on stage a clock showing the real time: something that I did in ...SISTERS and Monkey Bars and most recently Every One. Some audiences hate this; I’m very interested in why that’s so.
I’d suggest that time (over)determines our response, then, to the other three fundamentals you’re invoking here. We experience space in time, we perceive presence and absence in time. We tend to read only what is moving, what is changing ― and when, as I often do, I use stillness or (as close as one can come to) silence in my work, it’s to all but force the audience into interrogative movements of their own. Often, stillness is a way of changing frames or registers of scale: when nothing appears to be happening, an audience will start raiding much smaller details for information: stillness and silence are the theatre maker’s zoom function.
In the terms that I propose in my book The Forest and the Field, space remains consistently perceptible because it is always changing. Use ― witness ― is always, perpetually, translating space into ‘place’. I guess it follows that I probably have my most intense relationship with theatrical space in the speculative zone before a piece is made or even is fully conceived. I think creatively through visual composition, in an intuitive way that may be totally disrupted or superseded by the design process or the devising of content. It is a way of visualising form, and, by extension, often a way of translating the musical aspects of an emerging piece into a diagram or schematic. The really dynamic movement, of course, is the eventual confrontation between this conceptual space and the parameters and characteristic qualities of the ‘space’ in which the performance ultimately takes ‘place’: those tensions and reconciliations are integral to what we can now bear to call drama, and I have to remind myself not to smooth things over too prematurely or too slickly.
Presence and absence also tend towards each other (and away from themselves) as movements. We project matrix into absences until they become radiant with intimations of presence; we read presences with such lavish anxiety that they become slowly occluded into effective absence. Most activity on stage is that of entities intending to be present, who (feel they) have to continually shore up their presence. Absence can be a commodiously reverberant kind of space, and tends not to be disruptive or problematic, given that all it does is concentrate the whole system of theatre onto a particular locality. But I’m still not sure I’ve ever really satisfactorily created presence on stage. I think there are times I’ve been close: in his horses with the performer Theron Schmidt in 2003, for instance, and in Hey Mathew with Jonny Liron in 2008. But presence seems to me to require an unstintingly accurate inhabiting of the present, which in turn requires an intense degree of fidelity to the activity of time within the system of the work. I begin to think that the pieces, such as those just named, where I’ve wanted to create for actor and audience alike a plausibly authentic experience of each other’s presence, are flawed from the outset by being direct encounters between a soloist and a set of attendees. I’m starting to think ― and this, I think, I infer from some of the work I’ve been doing lately with my enemble Ponyboy Curtis ― that in order to read presence, an audience (and perhaps the actor too) needs the relationship to be triangulated: we need to see another actor on stage relating ― with exact and intimate specificity ― to the presence of the first. But I don’t know. Well, we’ll find out, I guess.
CS: Might you chat about works and/or moments when you felt the work was turning/moving towards something else/in ripe evolution, and how it affected what you made after those moments/points of turning, and why?
CG: I suppose I think straight away of the devising process that led towards a show I mentioned above, from March 2003, called Past the Line, Between the Land. It was conceived, towards the end of the previous year, as a piece looking towards America, trying to make some connection between the imaginary of the landscape and the ideology of the American dream in all its strange and terrifying manifestations. As we started to work on it that December it was already becoming clear that by the time the piece opened in March the invasion of Iraq would likely be underway, and that we would need to refer to that eventuation quite explicitly in the piece, or else we would surely seem addled or as if the work were somehow in retreat. It was exceedingly unusual, at that point, for my work to be overtly ‘political’ in that sense: I was interested in noise, in fragmented narratives and movements that created systems of oblique reference within themselves but that seldom pointed to the specifics of the outside world. It was interesting to adapt that performative language for the first time to contain some much cleaner signals about the geopolitical context in which the work was being made. (Interestingly, while we were making the piece, the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster took place, and bringing that in to the work ― including a fair amount of documentary audio footage ― became the crucial act, a bridge between the actuality of war and imperialist aggression on the one hand, and a variety of language and image data that could be pressed into analogic service on the other.) I retained ― and still do ― my interest in performance aesthetics and styles that intentionally foster multiple readings and ambiguous codes: but, as I’ve said elsewhere, when the house is burning down, what are we going to do with these twenty-four gestures that seem to have something to do with water? So this was a turn towards the explicit, not at the expense of the poetic, but as an extension of it: and recent pieces such as Men in the Cities and now Freedom are entirely propelled by the desire to turn up the gain on that explicitness until it becomes painful and even chaotic (in the way that squealing feedback sounds raw but chaotic), a starkness that is blatant enough to become intolerable.
The other really crucial movement happened later that same year, in making his horses for the performer Theron Schmidt. This was I think my first piece in which all semblance of narrative, or even of an emotional arc in lieu of narrative, was dropped. What was made instead was something closer to a poem: not as unadorned as task-based performance, but favouring a mode of relationality that reached towards visual art. It was the first time I had made really load-bearing my intuition that, whereas in conventional performance the actor is there to support an audience’s comprehension of a load of ‘content’, my work contrarily thrived on the idea that the content is there only and entirely to make the actor look beautiful. In other words, it is enough to watch this actor dance alone, or burn a leaf, or paint with water on the wall; moreover, it is interesting and beautiful in itself to watch this actor undress, to see him naked and be allowed to look at his body: no exterior justification or ulterior motive is required. That piece ended with Theron asleep, and an audience watching him sleeping, and choosing when to stop watching him sleep. For me, this was the beginning of, or a new beginning in the journey towards, an actor-centred making practice in which the impulse is essentially minimal: no clothes unless the clothing itself is the thing to be watched (this is an application of a maxim from Paul Goodman); no speaking unless speech is the only way to get something done that must be done; no narrative other than an attempt on the present. The evident resilience of this new intimacy in turn encouraged me when, a few years later, I started to get obsessive about the question of putting unsimulated sex on stage. A lot of these ideas have their culmination (for now) in the work I do with my ensemble Ponyboy Curtis: it starts with saying, it is enough to watch these performers do what it takes to explore their agency as a collective ― very little is required by way of devised or imported ‘content’. We watch real relationships unfold in real time. We watch (often unclothed) bodies in real encounters. All that’s constructed is the container: a marked-out space, and a pre-agreed duration. And it comes closer than anything I’ve made before to what I think an ideal theatre event might be.
CS: I was talking with a group of students the other day at the writing table- and the subject of dissident art came up. We were in a queer-identified art venue, although not all of the writers at the table identified as queer. The question arose partly around matters of form -
...what form(S) does and can dissident art take in a culture (at least in Western capitalist culture) that seems to co-opt fairly quickly dissident voices and forms into centrist or centrist-leaning artistic modes and structures?
...what is the relationship of dissident art to art that reaches a wider audience, and how as an artist do you or can you negotiate speaking, making and honoring dissidence vs. the desire that also exists (for some) to gather in and/or be part of the discourse of a big church?
...gender is performative territory to be contested and explored, but what do we mean today when we write a "male" role, a "female" role, or a non gender-conforming role?
CG: I recognize, of course, the anxiety that this question articulates: but actually, mainstream culture has no interest in theatre, which is one of the reasons I’ve set up camp here. Certainly there are routes by which dissident theatre may have its activities co-opted: in particular, club culture feasts on upstream live art practice, and exports commodity adaptations of those manoeuvres via fashion and advertising outlets. A culture in which a putative queerness overrides all other formal and political considerations is definitely vulnerable to assimilation (and, by extension, toxic to queerness itself), because it literally deradicalises queer as a relational vector and reinterprets it as a series of lifestyle choices and patterns of consumption.
Crucially, though, it remains (and must remain) true that theatre resists co-option on account of its most formative principle: you have to be there. It exists only in the specific time and place of its enaction and everything that would seek to harness or hijack that highly energised scarcity finds itself holding only an effigy, a zombie simulacrum. It follows that the most important thing we can do as queers right now to preserve a position of meaningful dissidence for theatre is to resist livestreaming ― and especially, cinema broadcasts of theatre plays. There is an utterly desolate neoliberal tendency in the arts that wishes to promote this practice in the name of ‘accessibility’: but we need to keep pushing back. Access to what, exactly? Certainly not to the ethical predicates of theatre as a social practice.
Theatre is by its nature dissident, until commercial pressures harden it into tradeable commodity formats, and the way for it to reach wider audiences without sacrificing that dissidence is for much more of it to happen at the small scale. That is the call-to-action with which The Forest and the Field ends. Everyone should feel that they can make theatre, in their kitchen or garden, in the same way that everyone feels they can sing in the shower or tell stories to their lover in bed. A theatre practice that properly embedded itself in the day-to-day movements of living would not need to scale itself up to achieve cultural traction ― and a big church is as useless to an atheist as a small one.
The question about gender is an interesting one. I mean I think a lot about it but the bigger conversation is (excitingly) so vast and polyphonous and contradictory at the moment and I’m mostly trying to keep quiet and listen carefully to dispatches from the front line. It’s true my work is often quite animated by gender concerns / ideas, whether that’s the all-male space of the Ponyboy Curtis ensemble, or the grossed-out fixation on patriarchy in Men in the Cities, or the gender games and fluencies of ...SISTERS. Right now, for the first time, I’m writing a character whose gender I don’t know ― one of the characters in Freedom whose identity is defined on the page only by what they’re not: the script is clear they’re not a white cis male, and the intention is that the gender identification of the actor cast in the role determines who the character is. I can’t tell yet if that’s smart, or crude, or both.
CS: colleague Andy Smith mentioned your "checking in" approach at the beginning and end of each day's rehearsal process as one he, Karl James and Tim Crouch had also adopted when working on THE AUTHOR - or perhaps this approach was something he and tim and karl had been doing all along! - in any case, i am interested in how "checking in" became part of your open process in the research and development stage, but also how it impacts the work being made, the temperature (metaphorically) of the rehearsal room, and especially what happens when you are working with subject matter that is on the whole emotionally "messy" or disturbing. are there ways in which you set parameters in the exploratory stage that differ markedly from when you are further into a rehearsal process or revisiting a show for touring?
CG: I certainly nicked the check-in (and -out) process from The Author; I might be wrong but I think that was the first time that Tim, Andy and Karl used it in the room, simply because that piece was so harrowing ― not necessarily for the reasons you’d think ― and they found they wanted to put in place a structure that would allow them to really keep an eye on each other. I’ve used it on almost every project I’ve done since, and it now feels like a fundamental part of my practice; and I run into directors and ensembles all the time now who are similarly enamoured of the space it creates, and are dedicated to it in their own rooms.
There’s something very balancing about it as a practice, even when something may be said that seems uncommonly strong or difficult. Everybody asks and answers a single question ― “How are you?” (or, sometimes, at check-in, “How are you today?”) ― and the way that that enquiry is methodically rolled out across the whole group almost unfailingly creates a real sense of equanimity. I like that it acknowledges our lives outside the room ―I can’t bear the violence inflicted on actors and other creatives by directors who insist that whatever is going on in our lives must be checked at the door. It’s true that those day-to-day circumstances can affect our work, but the answer to that surely is to dispel as far as possible the anxiety around them, not to exile it. Personally, I’d rather know: if someone’s slept badly, or had a fight with their partner or a difficult journey in, or their back is hurting, or they’re still upset about something somebody said two days ago, it’s immensely helpful to me as a director to know those things.
Of course it’s only an invitation, and one that many actors find it impossible to take at face value. Some who find they have little or nothing to say for themselves ― those who are basically “fine, thanks” ― may feel that they’re under-delivering, that they ought to entertain, that they should favour us with an anecdote or a joke or a fuss about nothing. Others simply reject the idea that one can speak honestly in front of a director ― or that it would anyway be desirable to do so. Above all, some participants are surely right to object that a check-in circle at 10.15am in a chilly rehearsal room in Brixton is not the right moment to elaborate on, say, what may be very daunting mental health problems, or an impulse to self-harm, or the pain of bereavement or break-up. Nonetheless, my hope is that people in those situations, experiencing extreme distress or anxiety, can find a way still to be with us, and allow us to be with them. “I’m really not doing great but thanks for asking” tells me everything I want to know, without overwhelming the room with darkness or defensiveness: and it attunes the context of everything that person will do during the course of the day in a way that, even if it can’t offer relief or reassurance, hopefully won’t add unnecessary further layers of pressure and unacknowledged disconsolation.
Provided everybody understands the rules of engagement ― that it’s not necessary to entertain, or to lie, or to overshare ― the check-in process that embraces each working day not only supports that day’s work, but, over time, creates in an ensemble a significant body of knowledge that expresses itself through empathy, affection and fidelity. Everybody listens; everybody is heard. A high quality of attention is paid: exactly the same kind of attention that is crucial to a genuinely experimental making process. In that sense, check-in is not a matey preamble but a technical warm-up, like a pianist doing scales and arpeggios at the beginning of the day.
CS: with each project, do you set out to explore stories and theatrical structures differently? do you begin sometimes with the pure formal enquiry? or does form and story come together for you when initiating a project? for example, i have often begun a work thinking about temporality or what landscape means. just with that, and through reflections and play (sandbox-style) narratives or potential narratives structures will emerge.
CG: As you’d probably expect, every project takes its own shape. Often, early on, there is a question, though that question might be no more developed than How can I think harder about this?, or Why do I feel this way?, or How can I get closer to this thing that’s on my mind? Which in turn indicates that before the question is a vague apprehension or a feeling: most usually, I think, a feeling of dread or unease: or the urgent sense of a lack, a deficiency. We make the thing to fill the imaginary space in which it’s pressingly absent.
Weaklings started with a feeling of envy, I suppose: encountering the online space of Dennis Cooper’s blog and finding that so many (to me) important lines of thought and desire converged there. So the question there is: Can theatre learn to do this? Can this form, which feels very particular to the affordances of online, be adapted across into the real world? So that’s about a desire for home, ultimately ― for theatre to be a better home for me and my friends.
Men in the Cities was always, right from the start, about wanting a conversation that wasn’t happening, about masculinity as a series of contorted performances impelled by patriarchy. I wanted ― unusually for me, I think ― to do something shamanic, to be a lightning conductor. I couldn’t otherwise find the space in which the conversation I needed could be had. The stories I told in that show were the last thing to fall into place, really, although the knowledge of what they needed to be came very early: the porn-obsessed kid, the unravelling father(s), the death of Fusilier Lee Rigby and the image of Michael Adebolajo with blood on his hands.
GOD/HEAD was conceived in fear: something real was happening to me that I didn’t feel I had the resources to think about. I wanted to talk, and to be heard. But it was more than that: the quasi-religious experience I had, which inspired and drove the piece, felt theatrical to me in itself: it was a sort of horrendous experience of being seen, of being radically and unblinkingly seen. It was a really unresolved experience. I think perhaps in the end I needed to know if I was forgiven. I think that show was all about me asking the guest performers, and each audience, for forgiveness.
Certainly sometimes there’s a formal impetus: for example, with Longwave, simply wanting to make a narrative play with no spoken dialogue ― which I suppose was principally about wanting to get closer to those two actors, Tom Lyall and Jamie Wood, with (and for) whom it was made; or with the various colliding narrative planes of Speed Death of the Radiant Child, which I remember describing at the time as one play slowly taking over another, like a virus or parasite. In a way that’s very close to Freedom, the play I’m writing now, which is a direct address narrative play sharing its performance space with a (hopefully) very accurate simulation of a contemporary dance rehearsal.
Escapology had a degree of self-injury about it: it started as a comic piece about the Montgolfier Brothers, but, as with Speed Death, I felt that was too clean, it needed other stuff to rub up against. Eventually it became a show about six historical characters, of whom the Montgolfiers were two. But also it placed those characters in an absurdly confined situation, and put the actors under a huge amount of pressure, because the dialogue for that piece was almost all improvised each night ― there was just a roadmap. So eventually it becomes a piece about the strangeness of ‘character’ as a theatrical technology. You turn the thing against itself.
I always think Hey Mathew was about having fallen in love with that particular actor, wanting to be closer to him: and then I have to remind myself that when that piece was conceived, I hadn’t even met him yet. I wonder if most of these narratives of development are actually false.
CS: some of the writers in this collection have spoken to me about how their work is ultimately a mapping of the self - that, in effect, the issues of craft in writing (which involve at some basic level- mapping behavior, structuring time and space, editing/cropping language and image, building a structure in which the materials take shape) - are taken over somehow by an interiority - by something that cannot be named, but which is tied to an articulation of self in relationship to the body politic, as body politic, or as self standing outside the body, regarding the body. does any of this resonate with you? if so, how and why? if not, as well.
CG: I absolutely recognize the truth of this, and it feels to me vital: not only that finally overriding or irresistible sense of interiority, but of an intense originary integrity in the service of which we are required, or condemned, to set against the social (public) life of form the intractable violence of the private and ― to borrow from Bataille, the patron anti-saint of this work ― the discontinuous.
It’s dodgy in so many ways, this: for example I think what you’re talking about is exactly what a critic like Michael Billington means when he affirms the indispensability of individual genius against the procedural quality of collective making. I’ve never wholly agreed with that ― I do think the polyphony of the ensemble can be relied upon to create noisy authenticities in the system in a way that makes the dispersal of authority feel vital. But the assertion of private logics and apprehensions brings ineffable distance into our intimacies. The compassion on which it depends requires a degree of exertion that I think can become critical in itself.
And partly, of course, the thwarting of form (if that’s what it amounts to) is one of the ways that form becomes visible to us: we see it, and perhaps love it, because we feel it break in our grasp, we feel it yield. Well, good. Form should hurt: and hurt for us. I think I am trying, often, to hurt the form within myself. There is a strategic coherence to this ― form, first and last, is how we mean things to each other in the constructed event of theatre, and it is good for that form to be exposed. But sometimes, don’t you think, we hurt the form for no better reason than the pleasure of watching it bleed.
It’s interesting to be thinking about the idea of mapping the self on the day that the death is announced of the poet Geoffrey Hill. I like his thing about how difficult people are, how complex our lives are, and how that difficulty merits the pursuit of difficult art. In mapping the body onto the constructed event, in overturning the privilege basis of private life, we create a set of relationships that are viable and intelligible only because they are constantly in the process of becoming something else. So, yes, into the space that form is carving out, I inscribe myself, neither author nor antagonist, but, somehow, the first witness, before all the other readings proliferate around the room. And I am in search of something that is neither recognition nor estrangement, familiarity nor remoteness: but perhaps, only, confrontation, only encounter, like between a person and an animal: and within the difficulty that inheres in that encounter is my best hope of consequential presence in the emerging moment of theatre. This difficulty is contingent and as irrational as form is rational. I’m recalling the line David Thomas sings on Pere Ubu’s first single, ‘30 Seconds Over Tokyo’: “Time to give ourselves to strange gods’ hands”. It should say that over the door when you come in.
Interview reproduced with the kind permission of the author and their legal representation © Chris Goode 2017