On day four of a two week workshop experience I was getting itchy. I’d been brought in to write – but write what? Dan Safer, the artistic director of New York dance theatre company Witness Relocation, was anything but itchy. He was relaxed, at home and full of humour. But by the end of next week, we had to make something out of this group of fifteen strangers. I was the ‘writer’, Dan was the ‘director’, Kaz (also from the company) was in charge of tech design, and everyone else were ‘performers’. These labels were immensely slippery. It was really more like a messy pile of creativity, with Dan at the top, poking his head out and looking around.
I’ve produced works in short time periods before. With the right bunch of people, you can put together a decent story and show in the space of an afternoon. But usually these conversations start with narrative. What’s the story? Dan and Witness Relocation ask this question, but it’s not given nearly as much priority as in other processes. By day four, we’d talked about the story very superficially, but we’d talked more about the relationships in the room, feelings, thoughts, concerns, body movements. I had spent most of the first three days just writing down verbatim dialogue from the room itself. It was just an attempt to capture what was going on.
Because of this, we never narrowed ourselves. The narrative we had discussed soon became irrelevant. But because we had never really given it much weight, it jettisoned off with ease. The narrative was never enforced. It emerged, incredibly vaguely, organically, and slowly. It wasn’t until a few hours before we went up on the final day that I turned to Dan and said, ‘This is what it’s about.’ I went through it with him, and he agreed. Yes. Given another fortnight, month, year, we could shape that and build it. It’s a narrative that I would’ve never written any other way. It felt unique to the group of people that we’d worked with, and felt incredibly of-that-time. It was undeniably theatrical. It was immediate, ephemeral, and responsive.
Going into the process I was scared. Dance theatre sounded like arty fart to me. I liked structure. I’m biased towards narrative. But my prejudice was a little mis-placed. Arty fart comes from a place of ego. It comes from a place of an artist showing an audience something as opposed to sharing it. It’s a one-way conversation. It’s unimaginative. It’s showing off. It’s pretentious.
My fears for this were immediately put to rest on the first day, simply because of who Dan is. Dan has an irrepressible sense of humour. He’s one of the most down to earth artists I’ve ever met. He’s unfalteringly kind. These ingredients make pretension almost impossible. Even without a narrative, even without structure and a clear context, you can create incredibly selfless, inspiring art. In fact, the model that Dan uses kind of enforces generosity.
The ‘traditional’ 19th century theatrical process has always seemed fascistic to me. A writer comes in with a script. A director with a vision. Six weeks later: a show. But what happens when a line doesn’t work? Or a character needs to be deleted? Or an artist becomes de-energised by what they’re presenting half way through a season? You power on. You respect the text. You respect the work.
Narrative is a grumpy, tantrum prone child. Dan tells it to get in the back seat and shut up. Occasionally, he’ll turn around to ask it a question. He’ll listen, then put his eyes back on the road. Narrative is important, but shouldn’t be placed above common sense. Something that worked a week ago may not work today, so let’s cut it. If an artist feels like they are able to have a spontaneous moment with the audience, they should be given permission to explore that. It’s truly generous art, because it’s all about the people in the room. It’s about the audience. It’s about having fun.
The workshop showing we presented on the final Friday made perfect narrative sense in my head, but it probably didn’t for most of the audience. It didn’t really matter. Cheeky chaos is fun, and it’s contagious. The audience left as energised as the artists. It was fresh, raw, and real.
We work in an industry where our greatest danger is ourselves. We need constant reminders that theatre is actually about community. It’s got nothing to do with us, and everything to do with the audience we’re presenting to. We don’t need people from New York to remind us, but I’m glad they were there. It’s affected how I look at everything I do now, from Life Etc. (a production I’m ‘directing’ and ‘writing’ but in intense collaboration with the two actresses involved) to my teaching work (kids love and understand this stuff instinctually).
Thanks Witness Relocation, and thanks Queensland Theatre Company for hosting. It was an experience none of us are likely to forget any time soon.