This page will describe the development of Not A Séance from October 2013 to June 2014.
First Performance Experiment October 2013 – Shoe Piece
Shoe piece was developed in our MA monday practice sessions and was performed at a private view for MA Fine Arts Students in October, My intention was to begin to create a piece that combined elements of my existing practice and brought in the new development of myself as performer. I also was sure that I would like there to be a participatory element. As the audience entered the space they saw lots of pieces of newspaper. They also saw two pairs of shoes on plinths. They were invited to work in pairs and approach a piece of newspaper. One of the pair removed their shoes and placed them on the newspaper. The other drew around them and asked them about “the story of their shoes”. I then one after the other put on the shoes on the plinth and in role, first as twenty year old man and then as a forty five year old woman told stories from their lives linked to the shoes.
My feeling was that this piece was successful in some ways in that people engaged with the task and found that the stories stimulated thinking about homelessness and other issues. However I felt that for me it was a very safe way of staying close to my existing practice. It was essentially a drama workshop with the added element of me performing and although it was to some extent an exploration of the relationship between performer and audience it was limited in scope.
Research – Spiritualist Mediums January 2014- ongoing
I was feeling confused about what kind of work I wanted to be doing I was interested in looking to blur contextual references and boundaries and in the space in between modes of being : “liminal space”. I felt in need of some external stimulation in order to develop my ideas. I decided to attend several spiritualist churches in order to study spiritual mediumship as a participatory performance practice.
What I was most powerfully struck by in these experiences was the change of register that felt particularly english to me. One moment we are speaking about the dead, the next we are reminding people about parking restrictions and reporting on a pair of lost glasses.
I was also, and still remain fascinated by the level of belief that people have that shapes their experience. I also found that it was possible for me to simultaneously believe and not believe what I was witnessing.
Second Performance Experiment – Jan 2014 Not a Service, Not a Séance, Not a Jumble Sale.
This performance took place twice. Once on 14th January as part of a private view, and secondly on 27th January for my interim assessment as part of the MA.
The performance created a world between worlds. The idea, that the audience were not privy to, was that the two performers (myself and Ryan Mckelvey) inhabit a world between life and death. They don’t know what they are doing there, but every now and then a group of people arrive and then after a timely interval depart. The two performers have invented a series of rituals in order to help them cope with the situation. As the group arrives in the first incarnation they were asked to place all of their belongings in a black plastic bag and label it with their name and date of birth, in the second incarnation, they were asked to remove only their shoes as this felt slightly less alienating. The space was arranged with an arrangement of chairs that looked random but that was in fact carefully chosen.
The chair arrangement came from a practice called the social dreaming matrix. This is a practice that asks a group to make free associations and be temporarily “blind” to the group. Hence an arrangement of chairs where no-one is directly looking at each other.
Then the audience were invited to sit down and Ryan read the list of names. When everyone was seated I then explained the “rules”. I would read a list of statements and if the audience agreed with them, they would repeat them, if they did not agree they would just say “no”. The statements ranged from the prosaic “I have eaten breakfast today” to the philosophical “when you’re dead, you’re dead” to the personal ” I tell lies…often to myself”, “cats are better than dogs”. The aim was that after a while I would stop making the statements and that the audience would participate. This did happen at the second performance and there was a conversation about childhood pets and running away from home. Twenty minutes into the performance an alarm sounded and Ryan and I ushered the audience from the room. Also in the second performance in order to add to the other worldly feel, we placed a bed in the corner of the room and Ryan and I wore nightclothes. Part of the performance vocabulary was that either of us could return to the bed at any time.
The audience response to the performance was mixed. A really interesting response was from our external examiner Richard Layzell, who said that he found the performance “provocative, yet comfortable” which has now become an aim for me in all of my work!
Other responses were not so favourable. I am often surprised at how negatively people view the concept of participation. In my world view and belief system, all performances ask for our participation, just that some ask for it in more conventional ways. There was some resistance to participating in the ways I asked of the audience and I feel that even though I can intellectually or theoretically justify what i asked, I have to acknowledge that some people felt uncomfortable or threatened or wanted to push at the boundaries of what I had created. This works fine in the context of the work, but I don’t think it is an effect that I particularly want to dwell on or focus on. I would like to take the audience on a journey that they freely choose to participate in and the demand to remove shoes and enter into an unknown space does not neccessarily create this willingness.!
Humour and comedy were also important issues to reflect on during this process. In the first showing, Ryan and I played up the comedy potential of the situation, foregrounding the tensions between the characters and possible clashes with the audience. Whilst this was funny, it stopped the performance having a convincing world of its own and meant it lost depth and focus. In the second performance there was a perhaps grandiose aim to develop a more Beckettian sense of humour with the comedy coming from the absurdity of the situation which was played with total seriousness. This was also in part a deepening of my enquiry about the boundaries between performance art and theatre.
On reflection, and there was much reflection, this still felt like a drama workshop more than a performance. My first experiment with shoes had felt like a drama workshop with me as performer added in, this second experiment like a drama workshop with me as a performer and a really weird setting! Looking back on it I feel that I was beginning to uncover my interest in the paradoxes and levels of volition of belief.
Subconscious Inspiration March 2013
Sue Pearson is studying MA Fine Art and is currently working on a piece where she embodies her dead mother. She is interested in séances and post-mortem photography. We decided to run an experimental performance session. We would take roughly an hour each to explore performance ideas. For my session I could not get the idea of peeling carrots from my mind. At this stage there seemed to be no logical reason for this and I decided to accept it and use it in my exercise. One stage of this saw Sue and I sat at a table asking each other questions that we had to answer alternately truthfully and falsely whilst peeling carrots. Sue’s session involved us in a séance attempting to contact a particular spirit who Sue had brought a portrait of.
The morning after our experiment I woke up with the idea of a medium who connected with vegetables and then began creating Not a Séance.
Not a Séance – One-to-one Version March – May 2014
I experimented with Not a Séance as a one-to-one performance lasting around fifteen minutes. The structure was the same with each participant. There was a table with a table cloth, six different vegetables laid out on the table, a cooking pot, a colander, a chopping board and a variety of vegetable peelers and knives.
I explained to each participant that I could connect with vegetables and that this session would be about doing a reading for them and also creating a vegetable stew that would be made with love and eaten at the end of the evening. First of all the participants were asked to discover which of the vegetables that they felt most connected to. They were invited to close their eyes and pass their hands over the vegetables and pick the two that they felt most connected to. We then embarked on a process that was pioneered by Dorothy Rowe, psychotherapist and author called laddering. This involves (in this case vegetables) asking people to choose between two similar things and asking of the preferences “Why is that important to you?” By continuing to ask the question it can go deep very quickly. You can read more about this in her book: The Successful Self. Depending on how willing the participant was to go this process then led to the peeling and chopping of vegetables for the stew. There was either silence or chat during the peeling and chopping depending on the participant. When that part was complete, I joined hands with the participant and connected with the vegetable I felt had the most to teach them in the moment. It was interesting to experiment with one-to-one performance, however this experimentation for me was limited. I am interested in the creation of intimacy in groups and how groups respond as groups. The one-to-one experiments were useful as they showed me the very differing ways in which people responded from taking it incredibly seriously, to playing along in a jokey manner, to being taken over by giggles. I began to think about turning this into a group experience
Not a Seance – PAVA Performance Platform 31st March 2014.
I tried out about ten minutes worth of a participatory performance with an audience of roughly twelve. I adapted the exercises from the one-to-one and also from my experience of going to a workshop at the spiritualist church to develop your mediumship abilities. I began in silence seated at a small table and began checking the energy of the potatoes. If they had some kind of positive energy they were placed on the table, the one i found with negative energy was handled with gloves and removed from the room. I then explained to the audience who I am and my connection with vegetables and that the purpose of the evening was to help them connect with the power of vegetables. I did a few readings, in this incarnation the readings were through the potato and the method of hand holding but the readings were random and not of vegetables, for example there was a swimming pool and half a dozen eggs. I then did a meditation exercise and asked them to try and connect with their spirit vegetables, then there was a Q & A session. This for me was an excellent experience. For the first time in all of my experiments, this one felt right. People were very engaged, they laughed and they also took it seriously. One audience member said that they forgot it was a performance. I truly believed in my power during the session and was excited and enthused to develop the work. Claudia Kappenberg my tutor said ” Your presentation made me curious and I felt very engaged. As we discussed, it does tread the fine line between being both completely silly and somehow also true and personal.”
Not a Séance at Divination – Performance for Brighton Fringe @ The Marlborough Theatre 20th May
Before this performance I had the opportunity to consult several folk on how to develop the piece with really useful contributions from Mine Kaylan, Liz Agiss and Claudia Kappenberg. Claudia planted the seed of research into vegetables themselves and Mine helped me develop this work by suggesting I deliver philosophical ideas through the vegetables. Liz Agiss threw in some exciting ideas about hysteria and creating sub text, as well as convincing me that the performance had real potential for development. I expanded on the ideas from The PAVA try out and changed the readings to be of vegetables. I also offered one-to-one readings and threw in a lot of vegetable related facts and anecdotes. I got to do the performance three times so got to explore the different responses of the audiences and my own improvisational abilities with the material. Doing it three times meant it was hard to commit to believing in it at all times and i went much to much towards my comic tendencies in the final performance. I performed in the very informal setting of the bar which was comfortable but that made me realise that the atmosphere that i really want to create is of a village hall.