Tuesday, 17 November 2015

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

Content note: this piece discusses, inter alia, the process by which I decided what type of water pistols to use in my Public Address piece, 'Shotgun Wedding', so there is quite a bit of discussion of toy guns of various types. If this is likely to be triggering for you, you may wish to skip this post.

Okay, so this post is a little  late. It was meant to go up the day after the first post about my Public Address piece, but rather inconveniently the day I published that I came down with the first bout of tonsillitis I've had in about a decade, and it floored  me. And then after that there was the final Public Address performance in Birmingham to prepare for, and other things and, so, here we all are.

Anyway, in the first of these posts, I told the story of the genesis of my piece for Public Address: The Soapbox Tour. At that point, the piece, called 'Blood and Confetti (or possibly Rice)' was a performance poetry/live art mash-up that involved me reading out things people's past or present partners had done and inviting an audience to hurl either a rice/confetti mixture or fake blood (in the form of red food colouring or ketchup fired from a squeezable bottle) at me to indicate whether they thought these were acts of love, or of its opposite. In this piece, we're going to look at how this became the final work, 'Shotgun Wedding', and then tomorrow in a follow-up piece we'll look at what I've learned from getting out there and performing it in front of actual audiences. 

Covered in rice. But what about the blood?

At the beginning of September, I and all the other poets involved with Public Address attended two days of production meetings for the show at the Free Word Centre in Farringdon. Going into these meetings, I already knew that one element of the original plan was going to have to be dropped. Sugars in the ketchup we'd used as fake blood had attracted pests to the theatre where we'd done our dry run, Alphabetti Theatre in Newcastle (sorry about that, Alphabetti folks). Apples and Snakes were concerned about this causing problems for the theatres on the tour, so ketchup was out. This was a disappointment: I'd liked the ketchup precisely because I hadn't  liked it, if that makes sense: one of the things I wanted to explore in the piece was the challenge of performing in circumstances that would make it harder for me to perform, harder for me to fall back on 'slam voice' and high status performance tactics. I wanted to make myself appear abject in front of the audience, and then I wanted to see if I could claw my way back from that abjection and still perform a poem to end the piece. And when the ketchup hit me, I hated its sliminess, the way it matted my hair and soaked into my clothes. There was something humiliating about it: maybe I was recalling that scene in Whip It  where Juliette Lewis squirts red sauce into Ellen Page's face, but it seemed way more abject than cochineal (our other blood substitute). Still, at least we would still have the food colouring to fall back on. Right?

Juliette Lewis and Ellen Page, sans ketchup. 

We ran further test runs of the piece during the production days, using plain water in the pistols to keep the Free Word Centre relatively clean. And it was after these further tests that our Director, Hannah Silva, dropped what was, for me, a major bombshell: due to concerns from the theatres, we weren't going to be able to use red food colouring either. We already knew theatrical fake blood was a no-go, as it can be toxic when it gets into one's eyes or mouth - and we knew from the first test run that this was going to happen. Fake blood, in any form, was out. We had guns, we had water, we had rice and confetti: that was what we were going to have to work with. So, like Keanu in The Matrix, I decided we didn't just need guns: we needed lots  of guns. 

We also needed guns that looked realistic, because I'd decided that if we couldn't use fake blood we really had to amp up the violent, intimidatory factor of the weaponry. This led to one of the weirdest research odysseys I've ever gone on in my writing life. Did you know, for example, that you can get a replica AK-47 water gun? Because you can (or at least you could - they all seem to have sold out, as you'd expect, really). It comes with a magazine  and everything. 


As tempting as the AK was, it wasn't right for this project: for one thing, explaining the need to strip the magazine, and getting people to do it, would be a faff in actual performance; for another, as you see in the pic above, like all 'automatic' water pistols, it needs batteries (yeah, like I said, I know my shit when it comes to water guns now) - but more importantly, it has the wrong resonance. When you see an AK-47 you think 'terrorist' (especially in view of the recent tragic events in Paris), you think 'spree killer', and I wanted guns that suggested violence on a more intimate level. I wanted handguns.  And I didn't want any of the complicated, pump-action/catridge-loading models Nerf have added to their Super Soakers range - I wanted something simple enough to recall participants' own childhoods. Point and shoot. Child's play.

At no point was the one-person water balloon catapult considered because, I mean, just look at it.

Fortunately realistic and simple water pistols could easily be had on Amazon, from where I purchased a lot of the kit which would be needed in the final version of the piece. None of these preparations were happening in a vacuum: in Edinburgh, I'd finally accepted the fact that something I'd previously written off as just a bad experience was actually a sexual assault, and for a while I felt it best to not leave the flat if it could at all be avoided. This led to some problems - the buckets for the rice which I initially purchased were way  too big for the job - but these were worked around by the time of the first performance. 

That first performance would answer a crucial question: would the piece, by now renamed 'Shotgun Wedding', work without the fake blood? Would the rice stick? Would it still seem violent even if it was less visceral? Would people get into it at all, or would the piece fall flat on its face? This wasn't a standard spoken word performance: as I'd intended from the start, it was in many ways as close to being a live art piece as it was to being a work of performance poetry. There was a very big chance that it could go wrong. Would it? For the answers to these questions, and more, you'll need to read my next post...

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