Monday, 2 November 2015

Of love and rice and water pistols: some thoughts on my Public Address piece - Part One

With Public Address: The Soapbox Tour now four-fifths of the way through its run, now seems like an appopriate time to open up about the piece I devised for it, 'Shotgun Wedding', about the changes it's marked in my approach to performance, and how I intend to go further in that direction in future. So this is the first in a series of posts doing exactly that!

As I said in my first post about being involved with the tour, I had become fascinated by performance art at the time, and particularly by Marina Abramovic's piece Rhythm 0, in which she stood and allowed the audience to use a variety of objects - including scalpels and a loaded gun - against her. I'd grown disenchanted with the stale format of the poet as prophet with microphone in hand dispensing Strong Truth on the adoring audience, partly because it seems stale and easy to parody, partly because, after many years hanging around the spoken word scene, I'm far too aware of  how many performers, some celebrated, wouldn't merit the prophetic accolades if more were known about what they were really like. It seemed to me that deconstructing this dynamic, mucking it up, and allowing the audience a freer hand and, potentially, a chance to reduce me to a much lower, more abject status on stage than I'd gotten used to, was a project which had both an aesthetic and a moral justification. Too much spoken word was becoming a form of set-piece-driven theatre. It was time to take some risks again, to allow myself to show real vulnerability on stage.

Marina Abramovic's 'Rhythm 0'

I had also become fascinated by the idea that our current concept of romantic love might be flawed and might, in fact, constitute an insidious form of violence against women and LGBT+ people. On an intellectual level I was interested in Dean Spade's idea of The Romance Myth, but it also became clear, in the process of working on the project and dealing with some fallout from my time in Edinburgh, that my suspicion of the idea of love was also, at least in part, a response to some very personal trauma. That may explain why my initial ideas for including performance art elements in my Public Address piece were so violent, involving me being punched, having my hair pulled, and so on. It became clear in the course of the initial discussions that this was a direction we simply wouldn't be able to go in: a work like that would need a lot of preparation, and a lot of administrative hassle. I was going to need to come up with something else.

Another reason that I felt we needed to include some form of violence in the project was the fact that when I talked to people about their experiences of love, so many of those experiences involved violence. As part of my research I asked people two questions about their past or present relationships. Where people were in, or had been in, a relationship that they defined as being a truly loving relationship, I asked: what does your partner do that proves  it's love? And when talking to people who had been in relationships which had gone terribly wrong, I asked: what did your partner do that proved it wasn't  love? These conversations were primarily carried out through Facebook, which has proved to be a much more useful platform for asking these kind of complicated questions than Twitter, although we have been - and still are! - running a Twitter campaign for people to provide their own answers to these questions using the hashtag #becauseyou. I was also lucky enough to carry out follow-up interviews with some of the participants and gather more detailed thoughts from them (this was an interesting experience to say the least, as some participants who were currently in relationships did bristle somewhat when I explained my research was driven by my own deep cynicism about romantic love. I became very adept at explaining that this was just my personal opinion, I in no way wished to shit all over their own hard-won happy coupledom and that I wished them the best in their relationship).

As you'd expect, many of the acts of violence people described - some of which were horrific  - fell into the category of things that proved it wasn't  love, but this wasn't uniformly the case. Some respondents were into BDSM, and for them acts of violence could provide proof of love, rather than its opposite. Some respondents described not violent, but still horrible, things done by their partners as the best thing they could have done for them at the time; others argued the case that some Big Romantic Gestures carried out by former partners were actually non-loving acts because they proved only the gesturer's interest in the romantic consequences of their act, rather than any interest in the actual needs of their partner. Some responses simply didn't fit either category. It was wonderful to see this ambiguity developing in front of my eyes, and I wanted very much to find some way of making the performance which would include this ambiguity, which would give the audience space to provide their own ideas on whether these gestures, boiled down to their simplest formulation, were or were not acts of love. 

It was at this point that a conversation with Kirsten Luckins, who as well as being a very fine poet herself also works as the North East co-ordinator for Apples and Snakes, happened, which would prove crucial to the project. Kirsten had seen and been very impressed by Selina Thompson's Chewing the Fat, which involves, among other things, the audience throwing food at her. What if, Kirsten ventured, we give the audience members two things - confetti, or possibly rice, as you'd throw at a wedding, to stand for love, and fake blood, to stand for its opposite? And I read out the reasons people had given, and if people thought something was an act of love, they'd throw the confetti/rice mixture and, if they thought something was the opposite of love, they'd hurl fake blood?

(You'll note, by the way, that I'm being very careful to say 'the opposite of love' throughout this piece. This is because it's hard to say what fits. 'Hate' doesn't quite work as the opposite, because hate on its own is a more complex emotion; violence doesn't work either, for the reasons given above. The opposite of love, I think, can be a lot of things. It can be contempt; it can be indifference; it can be obsession. It's hard to define, but people know it when they see it.)

This was the point at which the piece crystallised, for me. Everything after that became a matter of practical research. At a test run we experimented with the hurlability of various types of confetti and rice (conclusion: glitter confetti is best. Flower petals and paper confetti don't arc : they just fall to the floor) and various delivery systems for the fake blood, including toothbrushes and squeezable bottles of ketchup. Water pistols, which eventually became a key feature of the project, were almost an afterthought: when Kirsten and I were looking around Poundland for as many fake blood delivery systems as we could find, I spotted some water guns in the toy section and asked 'How about those?' Kirsten agreed: they turned out to be the first thing the test run audience gravitated to. And who can blame them? There's something particularly intriguing about a water pistol which appears to be filled with blood:

At the test run, the participants we'd invited went for the water pistols, and the ketchup. They threw rice and confetti, and fired fake blood and tomato sauce, with equal abandon. By the end of the test run, I was a mess.  My skin was stained with conchineal (we'd used food colouring as fake blood - theatrical fake blood is harmful if it gets in your eyes or mouth, and we knew that  was going to happen), my clothes were so saturated with ketchup that they had to be disposed of, and rice and confetti were stuck to my clothes, my skin, and my ketchup-matted hair. I loved it. 

And, as I put the test run, in August, behind me and prepared to go to Edinburgh for my Fringe run of Howl of the Bantee, that was what my Public Address piece was going to look like. It would be called 'Blood and Confetti' (or possibly 'Blood and Rice' - I hadn't decided yet), and it would be an audience participation orgy of fake blood, ketchup, rice and water pistols. But,as those who've seen the final piece will know, this wasn't quite the work's final form. So how did 'Blood and Confetti/Rice' become 'Shotgun Wedding'? What elements did we abandon, and why? And what did I discover as we took this decidedly odd fusion of performance poetry and live art on the road? For the answers to those questions, come back tomorrow...

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