Journeys in Performance
− if a festival is called after its host city, press like to write about a show which ends in a different city
− large volumes of pre-show press does not equals large volumes of audience/reviews
− working with national organisations means only 6% of the people you will encounter will have any idea of what you are doing
− performing on public transport means you are subject to public transport
− people in the Holytown area love stealing cable
− stolen cable means signal failure
− art is not compulsory
− get a champion in the organisation you are working with
− if you are taking people out of their comfort zone, you are their parent: if you look stressed, they are stressed; if you look relaxed, they are relaxed – what you are actually feeling is utterly irrelevant
This blog entry is a collection of my initial impressions after doing a show which aimed to undermine initial impressions regarding Edinburgh and Glasgow (and the land between them) among residents and visitors. It was a poetry-tour which began on platform 13 of Edinburgh Waverley, boarded the train with the audience, made anyone who was in the carriage an audience member (if they wanted – more of that later), and then left the audience in Glasgow Central Station at platform 5, with a map of the city marked with My Favourite Places.
I was the only performer: I had a notebook, a battery powered amp and a microphone. I had the poetry of Liz Lochhead, Gael Turnbull, Edwin Morgan, Elaine Webster and William McGonnagal. I had my own opinions, I had my own research and I had stereotypes by the tonne. I had the views from the train, the experience of the train, three of my own stewards and the staff of ScotRail and Network Rail, whose workspace I was invading. I had the permission of their superiors, and a hopeful, apologetic, defiant smile.
The journey of Even in Edinburgh/Glasgow, began in late 2009 as Even in Glasgow/Edinburgh/Glasgow. I had recently moved to Glasgow from Edinburgh to study at the RSAMD and I had been struck that before I moved there I had been to Scotland's largest city, its cultural heart, maybe a dozen times in my whole life. Let's be clear, it was not hard to get to Glasgow, except mentally. I never lived much more than an hour from it physically, but psychologically there is an Iron Curtain which dissects Scotland around Falkirk (in fact, probably slightly to the east of Falkirk). The rivalry between the two sides is jokey, but it's not a joke.
When I moved to Glasgow I was invited to make a pitch to be part of the On the Verge festival run by the RSAMD and the Arches. I wanted to do a show about Edinburgh and Glasgow, and following the advice of a friend, I decided to start by diving into what I already loved and so returned to a long-held idea of a poetry tour. Since the poetry and ideas would be about Glasgow and Edinburgh, it seemed only natural that I should show the audience both places, so they could hear the poems, hear my opinions, but also let what they could see out of the windows reinforce or undermine my words.
As is often the case with site-specific, site-based and general not-in-a-theatre theatre, negotiating between the various mighty, often corporate institutions was a tricky thing both in the development version in 2010 and in 2011 when I did the full version at the Fringe. As the sole writer, producer and performer I quickly found that it is the writer and performer who miss out in that triumverate of roles. Deadlines for press releases, or explanations to ScotRail or the Fringe office tended to shout much louder than the nagging whisper of my own knowledge that I needed to think about what I was actually going to say.
A large chunk of my preparation time was spent travelling the line, so that I could learn cues which would warn me of the approach of something I wanted to point out or synchronise with a line or a poem. The concentration it took to be 'present' for the audience, remember my 7000 word script and 9 poems, and keep an eye out for a specific tree formation, or view of a shale-bing out of the corner of my eye meant that after the show arrived in Glasgow, I tended to eat and then go straight to bed.
The biggest challenge of writing the show was fitting my argument's arc, and the points of the poems, to the narrative of the journey itself . This was to be an intellectual journey which mapped and enhanced the physical journey. I knew I wanted to give people time to think, talk and look without my voice, so I had to work in natural pauses. Another consideration as I wrangled with the dramaturgy of the show, was that approximately one third of my audience would have known about the show before they boarded the train (usually around 25 people). The rest (usually around 50) were just going places, sometimes only boarding the train for a few stops. I had to make the show satisfying as a whole, while also stimulating in chunks.
In many ways, these other travellers were my 'central' audience. On the performance days, my stewards would stand on the platform at each station and explain to those boarding the train that our carriage would include a free poetry event that they were welcome to join, to ignore or to chat through. Alternatively, they could sit in the other carriage which was completely 'Art Free'. Although one man asked the conductor to hold the train while he literally ran away from the literature, there was about a 50/50 split in the number of people who chose the poetry carriage rather than the normal carriage. The 'incidental' audience included a whole selection of people going from A to B on a line with two prisons and a prison store, six stops and two mosques.
With my microphone and my notebook, I looked much more like a tour guide (which I partly was) than a poetry proselytiser (which I partly was). I cultivated this appearance, as it meant that there was less preciousness about the event. This was not a sacred thing, separate from the world. Neither was it something which wanted to ram itself into a world and explode it from the inside out. I wanted to cultivate the sense of adventure that you can get on a journey, both from those who had chosen to see a play not in an auditorium, and those who chose poetry on their commute. However, I wanted to avoid the sense of fear associated with a military exercise. Some productions aim to shock their audience out of their normal lives with enforced, dare-devil audienceship. But if my audience felt afraid then they would not properly hear the poems. If they were merely excited by the unexpected then they felt and listened more closely to what I had to say and were more keenly attuned to the journey as a whole.
Collating my first impressions of this experience has highlighted that it is problems, challenges and disappointments that present themselves first. Like the form-filling, production side of the creation process, these negatives shout loudly about what needs done and what needs done better next time. However, I have many abiding positive memories of the journeys that people took with me. The first is of a lady who watched my first performance, who got on at Waverley in order to get to Bellshill. At each stop she moved closer so she could hear better and I spoke to her during the breaks in the show. She said she was listening because her son would be interested and it was so long since she'd heard any poems, not since school, and she never really though about the journey before, even though she did it all the time. As we approached Bellshill, she decided to stay on the train to Glasgow so she could hear the end of the show, changing her literal journey so she could hear through to the end of the concurrent literary journey.
At the end of the show, before the train pulled into the station, I went round those who had listened – pre-planned audience and otherwise – and chatted with them and gave them my personal map of Glasgow. After I got out of the station I kept bumping into people at the places I liked to eat, or heading to my favourite vantage points or museums. By ending in another city, there was no way that the audience journey could end when mine ended. My show was just part of their day out, just one journey of many within and between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Fitting the poetry journey within and beside, in front of and behind other journeys that the viewers would make on that day is an idea I take with me to my next show.
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