These notes form part of the tour programme for The Festival, the third part of Lone Twin Theatre's The Catastrophe Trilogy. It opened last week at the Barbican in London, and is currently on tour in England, then in Europe.
‘Quelle catastrophe!’ Notes on the making of Lone Twin Theatre's The Festival
‘Good. There’s our catastrophe. In the bag. Once more and I’m off’ (Samuel Beckett, Catastrophe, 1982)
The task of devising is to try to locate the shapes of what it is you think you’re looking for while often being largely in the dark as to exactly what that is. At the very beginning of work on The Festival, we have only the barest of hunches as to what we are after. We know that we will continue to explore narrative forms and structures in a simple traverse staging, a presentational and relational performance space of proximity, encounter and exchange. Beyond that, we have little more than a broad sense of wanting to generate a narrative set in the present, in counterpoint to the ‘pasts’ of Alice Bell and Daniel Hit By A Train.
In addition, we want to modulate the notion of ‘catastrophe’, and explore something much smaller on the sliding scale of catastrophic possibilities. Something more everyday, domestic, familial, something more intimate than cataclysmic. Perhaps just the sense of something missing, or someone missing out on something or someone: like the quiet pulse of a ‘hungry heart’. Gregg talks of the ambiguity of ‘tragic fun’, and of ‘songs of everyday life and how the silent catastrophe of love seeps into each hour …’
On one of the very first days in the studio, as we grope our way towards a beginning, there are just four words on the flip-chart - NO DEATH. NO INSTRUMENTS – like the seeds of some new version of Yvonne Rainer’s No Manifesto. So, we will orient ourselves towards the ever more spartan and pared back in a further refinement of the company’s goal to employ minimal means to maximal effect. Gregg describes Dennis Potter’s creation of song-based conventions for ‘saying complex things in simple forms’, then wonders aloud: if Alice Bell was a ‘line drawing’ and the greater complexity of Daniel was ‘coloured in’, then what would be a third form that had the ‘elegant simplicity of the natural?’ He suggests our task will be to ‘do what’s required, don’t art it up, then get out as cleanly as possible without the performance mode getting in the way’.
As we work, we dance around the rhythms of the ordinary in our stories and in our lives: the weather forecast, the café, work, the kitchen table, traveling. At the same time we return again and again to instances of the extra-ordinary in the everyday: chance encounters, surprising visitations, as unforeseeable as Miles Davis’s sudden appearance with his band on the runway of an outback mining community in Rolf de Heer’s 1991 Australian film Dingo: “Hi, my name’s Billy Cross and I’d like to play for you …”
Throughout the work of Lone Twin Theatre, there has been a shared enthusiasm for music, song and dance, without any of us necessarily being ‘expert’ in these areas, and at times we have approached devising with the buoyant, untutored energies of a newly formed band. In our work on this new performance, songs in particular start to assume particular functions in the studio and in the emerging fictional world. Songs as meeting points, games, sites of imagination, desire, small epiphanic excursions and suspensions in the ongoingness of it all (an ‘interruption of the incessant’, Maurice Blanchot). Expressions of pleasures and fragile yearnings in the face of present absences. Fleeting mechanisms for reflection and immersive celebration. As with the solace of the radio in the kitchen or the car, songs can offer dreams and time machines in the everyday. As we proceed, the micro-festival of singing provides the soundtrack to our lives.
*****As has so often been the case in Lone Twin Theatre’s approach to devising, our frames of reference in initial discussions are rooted in music, film and contemporary fiction (rather than, say, theatre). At one point early on in this devising process, for example, we look closely at some of Alice Munro’s remarkable stories. In part as structural and textural case studies and possible triggers for our own fictions: resonant ‘shapes’ and ‘feels’. In part for their grace-ful anatomizing of everyday lives, their repressed yearnings, confusions, compromises and mysteries.
In Lives of Girls and Women, Munro writes: “People’s lives were dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable – deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum”. Elsewhere in an interview, Munro suggests: “The complexity of things – the things within things – just seems to be endless. I mean nothing is easy, nothing is simple”.
Perhaps above all, at this early stage we are drawn to Munro’s temporal weave in some of these stories: the braiding of the time of lived experience with the unpredictable time of memory and its ‘embroideries’; the juxtaposition of the time of waiting, anticipation and imagination with the linear time of sequential events in the everyday, and the cyclical time of recurrence and return. Out of these delicate temporal architectures, Munro elaborates compassionate cartographies of processes of change.
Perhaps that’s what we’re after: a story that tracks small changes in understanding over time?
*****In mathematics, ‘catastrophe theory’ attempts to model the dynamic systems at play when small shifts in circumstances of equilibrium provoke sudden changes in behaviour (e.g. the ‘tipping point’ in a landslide).
In classical tragedy, the ‘catastrophe’ is the final resolution or narrative unraveling that brings things to a close. Aristotle proposed a ruinous shock that would provoke terror and pity and enable the purgative effect of catharsis.
In Samuel Beckett’s short play Catastrophe, an irritable director conducts a final rehearsal of a minimalist play-within-the-play. On one level the ‘catastrophe’ here is the actor’s tiny act of defiance in the face of the authoritarian director. For at the very end of the play, when the director has left, he ruptures what has been imposed by the director (and by a mode of theatre) by looking up and out into the audience, and ‘the applause falters and dies’. He returns the audience’s gaze in what is now a space of encounter, and the audience is uncertain as to how to respond. So the ‘catastrophe’ seems to reside in part in a particular mode of theatre, in its coercive power relations and compromised economies of representation.
When Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969, his wife Suzanne’s response after hearing the news by phone was: ‘Quelle catastrophe!’ She knew the changes this would entail for this most self-effacing and private of people; she knew that he wanted above all to be able ‘to be in his life’. I have always loved the honesty and compassion of this response to ‘success’. Reputedly, Beckett quickly dispersed the prize money amongst those of his friends most in need.
(Since their deaths in 1989, Sam and Suzanne have been buried together in the Montparnasse cemetery beneath a common gravestone that he had stipulated, with his characteristically mordant wit in the face of the inevitable catastrophe of mortality, could be ‘any colour, so long as it’s grey’).
As we proceed in rehearsals, the catastrophes in The Festival remain modest, related to small losses and a barely articulated sense of incompletion. The fiction hovers around a largely unspoken desire for ‘something more’ in a life that feels fine, but not quite ‘right’, ghosted by other imagined possibilities that seem to be somewhat compromised – and at the same time compromise one’s capacity fully to be where one is. So much is unspoken here; the dialogue often glosses over feeling, and moves on. Only occasionally do the emotions and perceptions that underlie these everyday exchanges breach the surface in small wishes and revelations. When they do emerge, they have a disarming economy and immediacy in this context, a joyous honesty that in itself may be both a micro–catastrophe and an illumination, an admission enabling integrative acceptance and change.
*****Ultimately all three performances in this Catastrophe Trilogy present differing conceptions and experiences of catastrophe in stories of love, conflict, failure, loss and compromise. However the ‘catastrophic’ here, whether epic or intimate, social or domestic, is always contoured with hope and the possibility of change. From these invitational and open-ended structures emerge playfully minimalist pieces of music-theatre, in form and tone suggesting a kind of proto-Brecht discovered by intelligent children with their hearts a-pumping on their sleeves.
And as we come to an end of devising this final part in a cycle of performances, and the ‘things within things’ unfold endlessly, our work feels unfinishable. For other stories and new songs insistently bubble up and out, and it seems as though this disparate ‘band’ of fellow travelers and accomplices has only just begun …
Extracts from rehearsal journal during the devising of The Festival, January-February 2010
The Catastrophe Trilogy is on tour from March to May 2010. The tour includes dates in the Barbican London (The Pit, as part of BITE), Huddersfield, Manchester, Aberystwyth, Dartington, Lancaster, Brussels (Kunsten Festival des Arts), and Utrecht (Festival ad Werf). The Festival will also be performed separately in Bath, Plymouth, Colchester, Barnsley, Bristol and Brighton.
For some reviews of The Catastrophe Trilogy, see here, here, here, and here
For further details of Lone Twin Theatre and the current tour, see the Lone Twin website here
For earlier posts on Lone Twin Theatre, see here and here