Writing, devising and rehearsing, when what you’re working on is something very interactive, takes on this imaginative, almost pretending-game quality for us. In the very early stages of a new piece (when there isn’t much to show yet) and in late rehearsals (when we just want to run the performance over a few times to really drill it into our brains) we sometimes don’t bring in someone to be our participant(s). Then, we just perform the piece, or what we have of it so far, as if there is a participant there (or we try to put ourselves in their place). Coming from a poetry background I’m used to practising to a pretend audience and it’s usually one in the mirror – rehearsing iOrganic pieces feels very different because it means I’m rehearsing a piece that’s led or influenced by what people in the potential audience might do. There isn’t necessarily a set way that the performance has to go. The direction the rehearsal goes in has to be based on how it might plausibly be guided by a participant.
We test out our new performances on friends and volunteers, because the pacing always feels different with a real person chatting back to us, and it’s obviously really important to see what sorts of reactions a piece might draw out of people. When we aren’t testing out brand new performances on actual (very nice and obliging) participants, we might take turns being responding in unlikely, unresponsive, or even obstructive ways, seeing what sort of things a person might say or do that could take the performance off-track or take us by surprise. Nobody has been anywhere near as difficult to engage with in an actual performance as me or Harry trying really, really hard to be difficult. Both a commendation on how willing our participants have been to try out something unusual and how fun and enjoyable they are to perform with, and also some kind of dubious honour for us, in terms of how difficult we can be.
In some run throughs, unspoken co-operation allows us to take turns to slip seamlessly between our actual roles and play-acting as the participant. Because there are two of us, there is always someone to test new small bits on and see whether they fit in the piece as a whole, and what they might add. Writing work like this by myself would be far more difficult I think (and also probably much less fun). We’ve been thinking a lot about making participants feel comfortable lately – or using moments of discomfort in a managed way, without making the piece totally uncomfortable. I find it can be hard sometimes to see what a scripted situation or conversation as part of a piece might feel like for the person experiencing it – whether a participant might feel more in-on-the-joke or more put-on-the-spot – so it’s really helpful to write collaboratively and to always have a second opinion. Writing in an empathetic way is useful for this for sure, but it doesn’t have the same value as actually trying out the performance with someone.
Recently we were working on a new performance we’re planning, and we were moving the furniture around to test out different ways it could look. It was really fun to drag chairs and tables around and say “so they’re sitting there at the start of it”, pointing into an empty chair, and sitting down in the seats ourselves to get an impression of how the layout feels – open and expansive, or close and closed-in. At this stage when we’re just thinking about how we want the space to feel, there is an invisible audience sitting with us already. Dragging chairs around and changing the shape of the space to see how it feels seems like quite a nice metaphor for writing a piece that will become something interactive, that audiences will inhabit for the duration of the performance. Thinking about how they might feel guides the decisions we make, much earlier than we try anything out on anybody.