Friday, 29 July 2016

Domestic Dramaturgy: Sammy Metcalfe @ Sleepwalk Collective

Sleepwalk Collective announce UK tour of brand new show Domestica

LONDON, Battersea Arts Centre | 5 – 8 October | | UK premiere
CAMBRIDGE, Junction | 10 October |
MANCHESTER, HOME | 14 – 15 October | | Part of Orbit Festival
BIRMINGHAM, Birmingham Repertory Theatre | 17 October |
CREWE, Axis Arts Centre | 18 October |
GATESHEAD, GIFT Festival | 20 October | 

Following critically acclaimed Amusements (2012) and Karaoke (2013), award-winning live art and contemporary theatre group Sleepwalk Collective announce a UK tour of seductive and dizzyingly beautiful new show Domestica.

On a stage that might be a painting or a page torn from a book, three women unravel a fractured text on savagery, nostalgia and loneliness to create a tableau vivant that is as alluring as it is strange. 

Part narcoleptic beauty pageant, part psychosexual fever dream, Domestica is a woozy, deadpan dismantling of high art that asks us to what we might cling in these ever-louder, ever more uncertain times we are living in.

Domestica is the final, crowning part of a trilogy entitled Lost In The Funhouse, performances that have all explored ideas of pleasure and boredom in the 21st century.

In 2016, Sleepwalk Collective are celebrating their tenth anniversary making fragile, nocturnal performances across the borders of England and Spain. 

Answers by Sammy Metcalfe (writer/composer), on behalf of Sleepwalk Collective (Iara Solano Arana, Malla Sofia Pessi and Sammy Metcalfe).

What was the inspiration for this performance?
We tend to work kind of backwards, and there’s an extent to which the thing that would normally be meant by “the inspiration” (in my head anyway) – ie. the sense of what you want to make and why – is something we’ll only really get to at the very end of the creative process, when we can look at the show as a whole – it’s shape and tone and dynamics – and then figure out what the text and the images and the music all seem to be talking about and what else they should be talking about, and then we’ll make sure (via re-writes and a gentle re-shuffling of the material) that that’s what it’s doing. If that make any sense at all.

All the initial, beginning-of-the-process stuff then is formal rather than conceptual, and is in a sense arbitrary – we’ll begin by choosing some very specific formal possibilities or formal limitations that seem for whatever reason like they might lead to an interesting show (for Amusements it was the decision to work with wireless headphones, for Karaoke it was the decision to have the show run off of a karaoke machine…), and then take that into the rehearsal room to see what happens, to see what the form itself wants to do. And actually with Domestica the project started from the simple fact that there were a couple of artists who we really wanted to make a show with (more on whom below), so that’s what we did. That was all we started from, the performers.

All that said there’s obviously always stuff in the air, stuff we’re watching and reading and thinking about throughout the periods when we’re making shows, some of which inevitably end up shaping and informing what we’re doing whether consciously or unconsciously. If I remember right, the very first thing to have some kind of impact on the shape and form of Domestica was a documentary (on YouTube) about The Weather Underground that we stumbled across in 2011, and although the work ended up going in a very different direction there’s still a trace of that initial impulse in the first couple of minutes of the show. 

Later, in I think the third rehearsal period in 2013 and via (somehow) a brief obsession with Patty Hearst’s kidnap tapes (also on YouTube…), we got interested in the idea of making something that looked at ‘high” art – something specifically that took the same kind of tools we’d been using in previous shows to examine pop culture, and turned them on classical culture – and that’s what we’ve been chasing ever since.

How did you go about gathering the team for it?
We tend to be really picky about who we work with, which is partly just a consequence of the fact that for years it was really only me and iara making and touring stuff – which fostered a weird and intimate and actually kind of claustrophobic atmosphere around the work that it can be awkward to bring other people inside of; but there’s also a certain creative rational, in that we make stuff very much with and for whoever it is we’re working with – eg. we always write text for the specific performer who’s going to say it, for the particular sound of her voice, the shape of her mouth, etc etc – and so there’s an extent to which if we can get the creative team right then a certain amount of the show will write itself (if we’re lucky…).

As mentioned briefly above Domestica was unusual in that choosing the team was the very first thing we did: we began making the show with Gloria March Chulvi and Isaac Torres, who work together as Los Anacolutos (website HERE) – we’ve know them for years, and we toured together in 2010-11, at which point we started talking about the possibility of making a show together. For the very first residency for the project – at MAC in Birmingham in the Spring of 2012 – it was the four of us working together. Isaac later had to drop out of the project (he was performing in a show by Angélica Liddell and rehearsal periods clashed), and when he did we invited Malla to join the project – Malla founded the company with us in 2006 but for various reasons hadn’t been able to perform with us since 2010, and this seemed like the perfect project to bring her back for.

And then as the scale of the project’s expanded over the following years so has the size of the creative team: as well as myself and the three performers (iara, Malla and Gloria) we’ve also worked with a set and costume designer (Ana Inés Jabares Pita, who we met via a residency at the Barbican in 2012), a video designer (Ainara Pardal, who we lived with in Madrid in 2014), and two lighting designers (David Alcorta, who designed the lights for Karaoke and who’s done all of the design work for Domestica so far; and Alex Fernandes, who designed the lights for Actress and Kim Kardashian and who will be joining us in the UK in the autumn to adapt David’s design as we make the final changes to the show).

It’s a good gang.

(Bonus FUN FACT: Earlier this year we were talking to Christopher Brett Bailey about him joining the cast for the English-language version of the show, and it might have actually happened if it wasn’t for the fact that he’s premiering his own NEW SHOW at exactly the same time as we are. It’s not a total bummer though – during the brief period when it looked like it might work out we spent some time imagining the kinds of things he might do in the show and we’re now finding ways of feeding some of those ideas back into the work, so there’s an extent to which he’s been a kind of imaginary, ghost-collaborator on the project)

How did you become interested in making performance?
The three of us met studying European Theatre Arts at Rose Bruford College in London, where our training was predominantly in physical theatre (quote unquote) and the classical avant garde (Futurism, Dada, etc…), all of which is I think still hovering somewhere in the background of our work. Then near the end we were taught for 9 months by Peader Kirk, who introduced us to live art and the Situationists and to the thin line (and the thinness of that line) between (true) theatre and punk rock, and who is to all intents and purposes the father of the company.

Prior to that (and now I can only really speak for myself here) I was, for whatever reason, interested in theatre from a very young age and then had a very good A Level drama teacher called Paula Mór who taught us (alongside all the dumb stuff she was supposed to be teaching us…) about Pina Bausch and Forced Entertainment and who did some wild devising with us and that was that. I got lucky I guess.

Was your process typical of the way that you make a performance?
For the most part yes although it’s been waaaaaaaay longer – ordinarily it takes us between 12 to 18 months to get from an initial idea to the final finished version of a show, but in the case of Domestica we’ve been working on the thing now for almost five years – we first started talking about it at the end of 2011, premiered in Spain at the end of 2014, and now here we are in mid-2016 preparing for the English-language premiere of what will be a pumped-up and re-worked version of the show as premiered a couple of years ago.

The essential reason for all of this is the scale of the work – having spent most of our lives making small-scale (mostly solo) shows that we can rehearse in our living room and tour in a suitcase, Domestica has a relatively large cast and crew to coordinate as well as a significant amount of set and props and technical stuff. All of which has made it much more complicated (and expensive) to plan for and rehearse for and perform, and the two year gap between the first handful of performances in Spain and the first performances in the UK this autumn is 100% down to the fact that it’s taken us this long to figure out how to develop and tour the work, and to gather together the necessary funding (and 90% of the latter work has been done by Sarah-Jane Watkinson our genius UK producer).

And then beyond all the practical complications there’s the fact that we’ve had to learn how actually to work on a scale that’s fundamentally new and unfamiliar, and to deal with everything a larger scale implies and demands visually, sonically, and so on. 

Plus there’s stuff like for example we’ve had to adjust to the fact that a structural change to the show that would normally (when it was just the two of us working on a tiny stage) take us a couple of minutes to make can take a couple of days to settle in when you have lights to re-program, set to re-position, a cast with multiple performers to re-choreograph, etc etc. And then there’s the thing of learning how to take a show of this size – bigger than anything we’ve done before in every sense (eg. while the runtime is only half an hour longer than Amusements - 75 minutes versus 45 minutes - the text is currently more than three times longer) – and then hold the whole thing inside your head at once so you’re able to actually work on it. And ok I appreciate that 75 minutes of live-art is hardly Mittwock aus Licht, but for us coming out of the DIY scene it’s been a steep learning curve.

But other than all that yes, we’ve followed what’s more-or-less our usual process, in so far as we have a usual process: as usual we've created every element of the show – text, music, images, etc – simultaneously, without any sense of formal hierarchy and with all the different layers feeding (and feeding off) each other, so that eg. if we got stuck working on a section of text we could go away and re-work the music for that section to see if a new bed of sound, a new atmosphere, might show us which way the writing needed to go in (which sometimes it did and sometimes it didn’t); and also as usual we made the show largely “in public”, ie. testing as much of the material as possible through scratches and work-in-progress performances – we’ve always found it hard to work only in the rehearsal room (rehearsing is really, really boring…), and we find it horribly easy to get lost inside our own heads, and so a constant testing of the material with actual audiences is a crucial part of our process.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?
I think that all of our work is, at least superficially, interested in the mechanisms and tropes of 21st century culture and especially pop culture and internet culture and really the whole messy over-saturated over-mediated age that we’re now living in and through. (And while Domestica looks specifically at classical art, we see that as very much part of a continuum, a flow of stuff leading all the way from wherever it is that we’ve come from to wherever it is that we’re going). 

And I suppose that on one level the experience that we’re interested in offering has something to do with creating a space for the audience to be aware of and think about all that stuff and about their own relationship to that stuff and about how they as a physical body and a physical brain sit within it all. And then underpinning everything we do there’s a thing about testing out, rehearsing, new relationships with modern culture and mass media and entertainment (and then by extension our relationships – by way of modern culture and mass media and entertainment – with each other); a thing maybe about treating the theatre is a kind of taster-menu or crash-test-site perhaps for the new kinds of relationships and experiences we might have or want to have.
Behind and beyond that though (and to step into territory that’s a whole lot messier and more personal) I think we’re motivated more than anything by a search for a very particular sensation or group of sensations, which is (as best as I can describe it) a kind of deadly cocktail of epiphany and melancholy, that seems to live inside certain moments, certain unexpected combinations of light and sound and movement, that we find in the art we love and sometimes in moments in our lives and sometimes, if we’re very lucky, in the rehearsal room. (And there’s a relationship here potentially with ASMR – shoutout to the ASMR community, btw –  although it’s not really that either, not exactly). And actually to get super-woolly, ie. to get even worse, there’s maybe something in this about attempting – from the perspective of a bunch of radical, skeptical atheists – to (re-)find and (re-)connect with a sense of “mystery” or of (even, oh god) “the sublime”, and to do so without attempting to explain or define or even really understand at all or even grasp or even in any way hold on to whatever that experience or sensation might be. 

And it won’t work for everyone, and you might have to sit in it for a bit before you find anything; sit with yourself for a bit; sit in yourself for a bit; and that sitting with and in yourself is also (I think) in itself valuable and important and probably as much a part of the work as anything else.
And then it’s also of course completely possible (and probably: to be hoped for) that the people who like our work are finding something completely different in it.

Which…and ok this is starting to get out of hand and this whole answer probably sounds (and probably is) frustrating and evasive and potentially lazy and problematic to boot, but I don’t know what to do about that and I don’t particularly care. I envy but also fundamentally distrust artists who can talk well about their own work, who understand and can properly articulate what they’re doing and why and…I don't know. I think if I really understood the work we make I’d stop making it. What would be the point?

(And a side note, which I’m putting here because I can’t find anywhere else for it: it’s interesting and weird answering questions about dramaturgy when if I’m completely honest (and for better or worse) I don’t think our work actually has any dramaturgy to it, consisting as it does of a more or less pure Dramatic Stasis(™), which is something that we might – if we ever somehow develop the brains for it – write something interesting about one day…)

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?
Our approach to composition is perhaps equivalent to an approach to musical composition or the more abstract end of choreography – you don’t maybe know what it is that you’re looking for (or at least: you couldn’t describe it in words), and you don’t even necessarily know how to look for it, but you know what it is when you see it. 

A lot of this work then is (broadly speaking) instinctive – by which I guess I mostly mean you go off what feels right, to you, in the moment that it’s happening, and you go off the assumption that “if this works for me it’ll work for other people”, etc; but as mentioned above we also balance this out by testing stuff with real audiences as much as we can to make sure that other people are feeling something roughly similar to what we’re feeling, or anyway feeling something.
And then overall a lot of it’s just about being patient and waiting for something to appear that you can grab hold of and then run with. 

And then once you’ve gripped hold of The Thing – a particular combination of text and music and image or whatever – the work then becomes about how you make space for that, how you sit it beside the other Things you’ve made for the show without resorting to “narrative” or “argument” or any other kind of formal straitjacket that might get in the way of The Thing, change it, ruin it, stop it from doing or provoking or triggering whatever it is that you’ve found that it does. It’s not rocket science. It’s pretty dumb. But if you can get it right – balance all the vagaries, avoid thinking about it too much whilst also not not thinking about it, not being uncritical, and also managing to maintain some kind of rigor whatever exactly that means – there’s a kind of alchemy to that, too.

Do you see your work within any particular tradition?
While we’re hardly working in vacuum (we actually made a list recently of 100 things that have influenced our work over the last 10 years, which is online HERE), and while there’s a certain charm and romanticism to the idea of being a part of a tradition or a movement or whatever, I feel like it would be presumptuous of us (on the inside of the thing) to claim (or demand) any kind of membership of anything outside of the three of us making shows together; and then I’m anyway skeptical about the extent to which traditions/movements/etc actually exist outside of critical and academic discourse...

…is the serious, considered answer; if for the sake of actually answering the question (plus also RE: charm, romanticism, etc) you wanted to eg. put us down as Infrarrealistas (which would ok be complete nonsense in our case but anyway) we’d be happy with that…

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