For the last 3 weeks I’ve had my head largely in the process of writing and learning to perform the first version of Freakoid, a commission I’ve been making with Sarah Applewhite for Ovalhouse and Pink fringe.
What is Freakoid?
It’s a show I’m performing. I’m usually a playwright. And playwrights write plays. But I’ve been falling in love with the work of theatre makers for some years now. The work of such people / companies as: Chris Goode, Chris Thorpe, Third Angel, The Paper Birds… and so, when an opportunity came up to make some work I pounced.
Though the thing is, I didn’t really know what I was pouncing on.
Because, in my heart I don’t go along much with the split between literary-led / maker-led work. Or however you want to express the divide. I’m a buffet type of person when it comes to art. I like comics and I like Jane Austin and I like non linear physical theatre and I like Panto and I like musicals and I like romance and I like radical expletive ridden brain and emotion fuckery and I like children’s stories, and romps and films, and fragility and thought provoking silence and music and fireworks and and… So the thing is, I know the divisions mean a lot to some people, but I don’t care much myself. I just seek out work that speaks to me.
Or should I say, that’s what I do as an audience member. As a playwright I have a desire to do this. I have a desire to work across boundaries and aesthetics. Yes I want to write authored plays but I’m also excited about the idea of building collaborative texts… Even so, I tend to work within structures that are set up for playwrights to work within. And I have found that in the end, it is easier to work with people who want to work with you. If people don’t trust the idea of what a playwright does then it’s hard to make a case to be involved. This is what I’ve found. When I’ve made advances toward theatre makers to try and start a conversation around the idea of working with them, I’ve often been politely but firmly ignored. And that is OK. You go where the work and the energy is. But it also means that as a playwright I’ve tended to work in ways which playwrights always work. I write the script, the director and actors make the work… And to be clear, I love this way of working. But even so, I was curious about what it might be like on the other side of the process… To find out what would happen and what I would learn if I made a play instead of writing one…
As such, when the Ovalhouse / Pink Fringe said ‘we would like you to think about applying for a Mauve New World commission’ I felt I had to go for it because I wasn’t convinced I’d get an opportunity like this ever again. A chance to do what I do, but in a new way. I thought I would learn a lot…
I was not wrong.
Beginnings of Mauve New World and Freakoid
The idea of Mauve New World (a co commission between Ovalhouse and Pink fringe in Brighton) was / is to create a platform for 3 theatre makers to explore ideas of what a ‘queer future’ might be. And I was commissioned along with Nick Field and Brian Mullin who also showed work last week at Ovalhouse.
To find out about some of the thinking behind the idea –here’s is an interview I did with Nick and Brian with Polari Magazine and one I did with When Sally Met Sally…
But briefly here - I started to think about:
Synthetic biology and android tech coming together…
About the philosophical impact that this kind of tech progress could have…
About the possibility that a computer in the not so distant future might have the capacity to turn to its owner and say ‘I love you’ or ‘I want to leave’ or ‘I’m going to marry your daughter’…
Do you feel emotionally ready for an encounter like that?
How would you feel about owning a thing that can have feelings?
It made me think about this question:
Am I a person because you say I am, or because I say I am?
What is personhood and who is it for?
This seems to be the philosophical question that underlies all struggles for equality (LGBT, children, anti capitalist, women, black or disabled struggles). Do I have the right to exist as I am, or do I need your permission to do so? Do I wait to be given rights or do I have to demand them? We might naturally think that by ‘being’ we are immediately given the status of personhood, but I think in a real way, personhood is essentially endowed or fought for and won. It is not inherent. Think about how people love their pets yet happily eat other creatures. The pet has been given the status of a person in the owners mind. The cow has not.
Or put another way, human’s have a pretty bad track record when it comes to ensuring the rights of other people in their midst. So the idea of bestowing emotional intelligence, complexity, curiosity and a sense of self into machines really intrigues/ terrifies / excites me! What would happen when these machines start to demand rights, start relationships, exert a will to live not just exist? Surely this would lead to feelings of disgust in humans? And where there is disgust, there’s queerness and a story! I began to imagine these computer/creatures as the new queers of the future…
The Story that developed out of that thinking…
And so a story began to develop about an advanced android brought up human who discovers that she is in fact an illegal ‘meat-bot’, cosseted by her Uncle (a morally dubious inventor). However, when she falls in love with a Hoover-Droid that cleans her Uncle’s castle, he is so disgusted that he throws her out onto the street. A street where she discovers the underworld of unsanctioned computer/human relationships… However, when we meet her, she is running a ‘curing’ centre for humans and meat-bots who have been caught living antisocial queer lives in that underworld. Our meat-bot has found a way to cure herself and is now a paragon of abstinence and virtue… Well that’s how things are at the beginning of the show, but as she tells her story to the audience (who are cast in the role of the perverts she is trying to cure) she reevaluates her decisions to live legally but without love… If you want to know what happens in the end.
The Process of getting there…
So I had all these ideas and an idea of the people I wanted to work with. I knew I wanted the thing to be very serious but also very silly. I wanted to explore that aesthetic. I began a discussion with two performers who agreed to be attached to the proposal… I put the proposal in… Some time passed…
And then - Ovalhouse and Pink fringe said ‘Yes’.
I said ‘WOW’ and then ‘yes’ back…
THEN I rang up the performers to say ‘It’s happening!’
But in the time it had taken for the work to be given the green light, both of the performer’s situations had changed and they were both no longer available. I understand. This is the world of freelance and living on the edge of your rent bill. The contract comes? You take it. Still. It didn’t change the fact that I now found myself in the heady position of having won a commission to make a piece of work as a lead artist/ co creator, only to find that I had none of the performers I had imagined making the work with, available. And I should say that because of the aesthetic of the work, I knew that I needed to work with very specific people. I wanted Freakoid to be very serious and very silly. I wanted it to be political and uncomfortable but also like a child’s story. I wanted to be in a room with people I knew would be excellent at giving themselves over to such things. I didn’t know anyone else that I could imagine being right for the process. I’m sure I was wrong, but that’s how it felt at the time… So then I was faced with either giving the commission up or changing the focus and performing the work myself and finding a director…
To be honest, if I had known what I know now, about what I would have to go through to make a solo show, I would probably have backed away at this stage. However, I did not know what I know now. And I’m very glad I didn’t know. If I had known, none of this would have happened.
Freakoid goes Solo…
My plan at first was to just kind of head off into a room with a few songs, a draft of an idea and then play with it in someway and get some friends to pop in every so often to have a look… However, I was lucky to have some great and generous conversations with some great and generous people. They basically said, very gently. ‘There is no such thing as a solo show. Don’t do this alone. Find a key collaborator’. I decided to take them seriously. I am VERY GLAD I DID. I feel incredibly lucky that I managed to convince Sarah Applewhite to come into the process to direct. The process would not have happened without her. It was a true collaboration and one of the things I have learnt about this way of working is – the collaboration is the work.
The collaboration is the point. If I had collaborated with anyone else, Freakoid would be a totally different show. This is one of the key differences I found making a play rather than simply writing a play. The play itself changed and evolved to reflect the strengths and limitations of what Sarah and I could bring to it. It is an incredibly intense but personal way to find a story. It is not about ‘being true to the text’. It is about being true to the story that is happening in the room. The text becomes part of that. I found this very comforting later on in the process when I had to face the fear and perform the fucker. Trying to do justice to the process and the spirit in which we had discovered the story was the thing I focused on. Each night I tried to say this to myself: ‘Do not focus on your knocking heart or knees. Do not focus on the sweat in your pants. Do not focus on wanting to cry. Do not focus on wishing that the floor would swallow you up. Do not focus on the people in the audience that you know. Stop worrying about whether they will think the work is any good or not. Stop worrying if people like it. It doesn’t matter’. Instead think about this: ‘What’s the story?’ and ‘Can I make this moment about the work and not about all my ego shit?’
Did I mention that I have a strange relationship with performing?
For the full run, every day I was as nervous. From 4pm onwards. Just nerves. No eating. Just nerves. Once the show started I was fine. But until the second it started? Just nerves, nerves, nerves.
I think this has something to do with being dyslexic. I find remembering text very difficult. But mostly it’s because I have been confronting my fear of acting…
I have a fear of acting. I’m overcoming it. But even so, you may wonder why I decided that attempting a 20 minute solo show would be a good idea given the fact that I really don’t like acting?
Well, the thing is, when I took the decision to perform Freakoid, I didn’t realise I was going to have to act exactly. I thought I could kind of make doing the show a bit like doing a music gig (something I’ve done lots of and know I can do)…
Only it turned out that I was wrong.
20 years ago I did a Theatre Studies and Drama Degree…
I was good at the theatre studies part, but I was rubbish at the acting bit. Or rather, I felt rubbish at it. Or rather, I felt fraudulent. In rehearsals a director would ask ‘what is your character thinking right now?’ And I would just feel blank. The only thing that ever motivated me while I was on stage was the following question:
‘What is my next line?’
Or if I was not thinking that, I would be having an inner debate that went a bit like this:
Shh we’re acting
I know but the thing is, I’m worried.
Never mind that. What is the next line?
I don’t know. But I think the really talented lass has a monologue for half a page. So all we have to do for a while is stand here and look serious.
OK, so, what’s the problem?
Well, I’ve noticed that when I’m acting, I’m not really acting, I’m just being me saying lines.
I’ve noticed that too.
I’m me, pretending to be someone else. Instead of really becoming someone else.
Proper actors become other people.
Right now, I’m just Emma being a bit glum in a big cloak, pretending to be Death in Blood Wedding, instead of, well, really being the essence of Death.
Shh. The monologue is coming to an end. What is the next line?’
I don’t know. Do you?
So there you have it. I have no capacity to become someone else on stage. I have seen actors doing it. And I can write other characters and imagine them. In my head I can sit for hours and feel the thoughts of someone else. But I cannot portray that and become that... So, as you might imagine, I had bad memories of acting. Bad memories of trying to do this thing that I couldn’t do. So when I signed myself up to do Freakoid solo, I only did that because I thought that performing could be done without acting. I thought, ‘I can just be a slightly not real version of me on stage and it will be fine’.
However, all that was a delusion…
What I discovered (with a good deal of patient guidance from Sarah) was that there is quite a lot of acting involved in performing. Sarah introduced me to this reality as gently as she could. But in the end, I had to deal with the stark truth - performing (even a pretend version of yourself) still requires a kind of honest abandonment to the moment. Or put another way it requires vulnerability. Acting had always made me feel vulnerable. And now it turned out that performing while different still required giving into that feeling of being open, confident yet vulnerable on stage. It feels scary. It feels really scary to do that. And while Freakoid does not require Hamlet type emotional fandango. It does require that I am as honest in the moment as I can be. To explore that aesthetic of very silly and very serious at the same time? The only way to do that was to try and be honest… And I found that really awful. It made me cry in a rehearsal when I realized what I had to do. I think I had mistaken the idea of creating a fictionalized version of myself for a process where I could turn up but not fully and honestly be in the moment. And I had to face that. Or put another way. To do Sarah and the story and the audience justice, I realized I was going to have to stop being frightened and start doing some stuff that might feel a bit like acting, even though it wasn’t acting.
Because of all of this - making Freakoid was/ has been and no doubt will continue to be a daunting, awful yet an amazing process. I’m learning so much about what performance is, what collaboration can be and also about my writing full stop. When you have to speak your own lines, you get a clear and brutal idea of what is working and what is only fit for the bin. You can’t delude yourself that the line didn’t work because the fool didn’t know how to deliver it!
And I haven’t even mentioned the songs or the fact that the keyboard broke and my friend Stuart did a mercy dash to fix it or the fact that the people at Ovalhouse are brilliant and if you ever get the chance to work there you should… But I’ll stop there… Well almost there…
Did I mention Sarah and I are remaking Freakoid?
Yes we are! We’re taking a bit of time off to think; regroup and then we’re starting work again. The next shows will be on in Brighton on Friday 20th July and Saturday 21st of July at the Nightingale. If you can, come.