embedded critic: Forest, afterword
Embedded Critic: Forest
Wed 6 Feb 2019
In the spirit of theatre being live an morphic I pay tribute by my final piece of writing on James Monaghan’s Forest being a record more of a succession of aftermaths than the process/show themselves. I write this two weeks after James and I had our catch up meeting and a full twenty seven days since I saw the performance of Forest at PUSH Festival. Everything feels a long time ago.
I meet up with James and it’s like it ever is. We drink coffee and talk broadly. In my introduction to this series of posts I describe conversation with Monaghan like a kind of group thinking aloud. This is one of those experiences and before we even talk about Forest we talk about other projects we’re working on, states of mind we’ve been in lately. This is the first time I’ve spoken to James since he’s read the pieces I’ve put out about his show and process. It’s strange to have been thinking aloud on my own, and suddenly have an answer come to every piece all at once.
Leentje couldn’t make today. It was planned the three of us would meet but we each have our lives and they are difficult things to plan. We ended up talking about Leentje’s involvement rather than to her which is a shame. I want to acknowledge that the conversation we hoped for had more voices.
If you like, this particular post is co-authored by Monaghan. The notes I’m writing from are notes from our conversation on the 6th and the point of this final post is as much a check in and an evaluation of the relationship we found ourselves in during my residency in his process. Talking of a succession of aftermaths, each of the pieces I wrote last month is a history now, of something no longer live. When I write, I am slowly adding to the list of things I am alienated from.
When I began this process I concerned myself with thinking about the things I wouldn’t be. What I have been is already recorded so this post is more a collection of notes and thoughts that will bear on the posts I’ve already written. More or less, it’s an interpretation of my notes from the chat I had with James.
You become a different person when you’re around different people. As a model of understanding the world, people are only distinguishable as individuals as a result of the collection of differences they are. When you’re in conversation with someone, you’re chucking pennies at a bell, hoping enough of them make contact to produce a melody. (Abstraction is all I write about) (Myself is all I write about). It’s a while since I’ve had as abstract a goal in my writing as I have on this project. Usually I’m writing emails, or short stories, or straight-up reviews (or revews) and the theme is set at the start, I’ve a mission. This experience of writing ‘in response’, to a fluid process of creation, rather than a set concept/idea or finished production, has been freeing, in a way. I’ve become conscious of using metaphors more frequently than perhaps I’d be bothered to if I was writing something that had a more obvious utility. I think metaphors make things less clear and I’ve been less concerned with clarity in the writing I’ve done on this project and so there have been more metaphors.
I think this stylistic effect on my writing has been related to James’s way of ‘thinking out loud’ during his rehearsals. The show gets made in the air, is the sense I get. James speaks it out, throws it out to see what stays hanging there and deserves to be in the final show. Me and James talked about his anxiety about making and that pressure to enter the rehearsal room on a good day. We can relate. We both share a faith in our ability to make good work if we’re in the right place, but the string of rehearsal dates can be daunting, a strange pressure to be the best version of yourself. Which is why it’s important to me to work with other people if I’m doing theatre. I do too much writing and writing is v solitary.
We talk about the Distance between Leentje and James’s practices and the fact that this whole rehearsal and making process was about finding their working relationship as much as it was about making a show. This was the first time they’ve collaborated and so obviously it ended up being a process filled with compromise and surprises. Maybe it’s entertaining to think of the final performances of Forest not as the result of a rehearsal process but as the result of a series of social compromises. I think more ought to be written about the social space of the rehearsal room (in general). When a room is done well, it is an aspirational model for the connection the ‘piece’ will make with an audience. What was significant with Forest (and I think common to many contemporary making processes) is the consistent element of uncertainty, the knowledge you need to see it in front of an audience to understand it.
I think it’s better to see work as a continuum. The individual show is not the thing. The series of consequences of making multiple works over a career as an artist (and as part of a community and landscape of artists) are cumulative. Leentje and James are in a more significant way moving towards the next piece they make then they are focusing on the final state of this one. By which I mean, and artist or maker who is going to continue to be interesting is one who will learn continuously. The moment you cease learning, you’re probably repeating yourself.
We talk about the abstraction of the finished work, as something that doesn’t really ‘make sense’ in an overt way. I think of it as a particularly British thing – the feeling the audience need to ‘get’ something in order to be allowed to enjoy the piece/performance/play/painting. You get so much text on the wall in art galleries don’t you? I think it should be difficult to find out who did what or when it was done or what it’s made of or why. I’d much rather things were presented and we were allowed to be confused or ignorant about them and like or dislike them in spite of that.
Maybe it’s a result of us all being anxious and scared of our position. I think of knowing your place as a core part of the way we experience art as British individuals. Especially when art is presented in big sandstone buildings or strange white rooms near train stations. It’s hard to be casual about any art form that presents itself on the other side of a series of hoops and fancy buildings.
James talks about work being raw/live in the sense that it’s difficult to know for either audience or performer what happens next. I think this is an energy particular to his practice in the rehearsal room, and wonder what Leentje’s counter would be. I’ll probably get in touch with her out of my own compulsion to know. In James’s previous piece, Hungry, he sat with a group of strangers and had a conversation about porn. It was loosely curated but the impulse of the show was a complicated question, no right or wrong answers, no solution. There definitely is a sign of that confidence to be open in the final version of Forest.
In talking about James’s wider practice, what he hopes to do in future, what he’s already doing, we come upon the thought that a performance doesn’t need to ‘land’ a message but reach a moment. That being impenetrable is a mark of respect for an audience’s ability to find their own meaning. When space and agency is given to an audience, enough to give them confidence to do their own probing, I believe that can happen. Brains are complex tangled things, they can draw out meaning from anything, if they are allowed to.