Tuesday, 8 August 2017

What If Dramaturgy Told You: Pauline Mayers

Northern Stage at Summerhall 2017The Mayers Ensemble (UK) and West Yorkshire Playhouse present 
Theatre/dance crossover explores personal boundaries and histories, directed by multi Fringe First winner Chris Goode
Fringe first-timer Pauline Mayers is used to people making assumptions about her based on her gender, background and skin colour; it’s been happening all of her life. But she’s defied those expectations at every turn, tearing up the narrative that society tried to impose on her.

Last year Pauline hit a crisis point. Perhaps not that unusual for a woman in her mid 40s, but a pretty big deal when it happens to you. She didn't know where her life was taking her, had no sense of where she’d come from. She was at a crossroads but couldn’t see where the routes led. So she looked back thorough her life and thought about how her experiences may relate to others.

Listings informationVenue: Army@The Fringe in association with Summerhall, Venue 210  
Dates: 11-26 Aug (not 14, 21)
Time: 17.00 (60 mins + 60 mins Koan: What If You Told Us)
Tickets: £12, £10 (preview 11 Aug £8, £6)    
Venue Box Office: 0131 560 1581  www.summerhall.co.uk 

What was the inspiration for this performance?

There wasn’t a point of inspiration. Actually, around the time of making the show, I hit a moment of great uncertainty and apathy. Although I’ve been involved in the arts for many years, as a dancer and choreographer for dance and theatre companies across the UK, I felt I had nothing to show for it. I was unemployed, hitting my forties and I literally didn’t know where my life was going. The constant feast and famine nature of what I was doing had finally taken its toll and I wanted out. I was also tired of the way people appeared to judge me and what I do based seemingly on my appearance rather than my experience or talent.

Being a highly trained professional performance maker with over 25 years of experience who happens to be a woman with black skin, I felt, more often than not, that I was seen as someone who followed others rather than a person more than capable of leading a team of artists to create shows for both the public and fellow peers alike.

I initially trained as a dancer at the Rambert School in London, taught at the Royal Ballet School, danced for several high profile dance companies, created whole dance shows in community outreach programmes, taught and ran my own dance and theatre residencies, danced internationally, I could go on. Yet somehow the idea of me being a choreographer and theatre maker wasn’t quite believed.

This has been the case throughout my entire career. In fact, when I first expressed the thought of being a dancer at the age of thirteen, my school teachers sought to dissuade me from doing so saying that the profession wasn’t for me and instead sought to encourage me to be a secretary instead - which I ignored!

Looking back over my time in the arts, I realised I was spending a lot of my time having to explain and defend who I am and what I do and although my work was very much in the public arena, somehow I wasn’t. I was tired of having to seemingly justify my very existence in the performance arts world. So, I decided to retrain as a counsellor.

I took an introduction to counselling course with the intention of completing my training within five years. What If I Told You (WIITY) is a way of expressing my frustrations at being judged by my appearance. I feel judgments are being made subconsciously all the time and it’s causing nothing but fear and anger across the UK and has done across the decades. But the question is, where has this idea of judgement based on skin colour come from?

WIITY seeks to interrupt this antagonistic way of being by creating time and opening up a space which enables audiences to listen and reflect on why this keeps happening. It was also meant to be my final hurrah, a way of saying goodbye to the arts world, and leave with some sort of legacy to say I was here and I contributed.

However, since it’s initial conception, it’s become like my calling card, a stated intention that I will continue to make work as the Mayers Ensemble. It’s become a reminder that there will be high and lows and that is just the nature of the arts. What I must do is to focus on the work I want to make. Ultimately, the arts is literally in my DNA, I can’t help but to continue.

Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas? 

Absolutely! Until technology came along, public discussion was exactly how human beings exchanged ideas.

The Silk Road, a main trading route from the African continent through to China and Japan was also where ideas of art, culture, religion and spirituality, maths and language were being exchanged through public discussions. This way of introducing and interrogating ideas has been slowly eroded over the centuries.

What performance can do is introduce its audience to different ways of thinking, creating both time and a space to reflect and, if encouraged, to discuss what people may be thinking or feeling in response to what they have seen. Having some counselling skills and knowing that some of the content of the show is harrowing and uncomfortable, What If I Told You has a second half called Koan which is a Japanese word with one definition being “public thought” and it’s exactly that. Led by the brilliant poet and activist Khadijah Ibrahiim, it’s a space where the audience has the opportunity to discuss some of the themes of the show in a safe space, where what happens in the room stays in the room and won’t be expressed elsewhere.

How did you become interested in making performance?

I’m intrigued by hearing voices and seeing stories that I wouldn’t usually see or hear. I’m interested in giving voice to those who may not otherwise be heard. My own struggles of making myself heard has led me to give space to others who may be experiencing similar things. A lot of my earlier collaborations gave voice to exactly these kinds of stories.

For example, ‘Promised Land’ with Red Ladder Theatre was the story of Leeds and its football club told through the eyes of the Jewish community, ‘Burmantoft Stories, an outdoor, site specific show I directed for the West Yorkshire Playhouse, asked audiences see the vibrancy and beauty of the Burmantofts area of Leeds by shining a light on the stories of the talented individuals who live in the community. Burmantofts had been dismissed as an area of high crime and unemployment when in fact it was no different to any other inner city area. Indeed Hackney, where I’m from was also seen as such and that demonisation can have a demoralising effect on the communities that live and work there. It’s the unveiling of different ways of expressing the human condition that I’m curious about.

Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?

To be honest, the only approach I took was to enable audiences to walk with me in my world, to feel a little of the everyday struggle I have to contend with, and to finally own my story and express it in the way I want to express it.

Does the show fit with your usual productions?

Not at all. In fact it’s a major departure from anything I’ve done before. WIITY is conceptualised, written and performed by me. It’s the first time I’ve written a solo show and I worked with theatre maker Chris Goode as director, someone I both trust wholeheartedly and enjoy making work with.

I joined Chris Goode and Company as a collaborator initially and we’ve worked together on many projects over the years. It’s also the first time I’ve used performance to find the intersection between theatre and dance, and how to interact with face to face with audiences.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

I hope audiences will experience something they will never forget. And I hope my show is a catalyst for a small shift in how people think about skin colour prejudice and that they begin to be open to seeing skin colour prejudice as a ideology that should remain in the past.

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?

The only strategy I considered was to enable the audience to feel some of what I’ve felt, to spend some time in my shoes.

What if I Told You is Pauline’s way of telling her (his)tory as a black woman, a dancer and choreographer. It’s a story of universal truths and contradictions that we can all relate to. She invites her audience to spend an hour playing together to challenge boundaries, personal histories, gender and skin colour, carefully balancing dance and theatre and dispensing with traditional barriers between performer and audiences.

Along the way the story of James Sims, cited by some as the ‘father of modern gynaecology’, weaves through Pauline’s own. Sims bought then operated on, black female slaves, without anaesthetic, believing that black bodies didn’t suffer pain in the way white bodies do. Many of Sims’ methods and discoveries are still used today.

A thought-provoking and powerful piece of work’ The Culture Vulture
In the second part of the show, Koan: What If You Told Us the audience is invited by poet, playwright and activist Khadijah Ibrahiim to share thoughts and ideas inspired by the show.

What If I Told You is written and performed by Pauline Mayers and directed by Chris Goode. It was developed at West Yorkshire Playhouse and is a co-production by The Mayers Ensemble and West Yorkshire Playhouse.

The show is performed at Summerhall’s newest space, The Army Reserve Centre on East Claremont Street EH7 4HU. 

Pauline Mayers trained at the Rambert School and is a theatremaker, choreographer and dancer. She has performed in contemporary dance companies and taught choreographers across the UK and internationally including Janet Smith & Dancers, Diversions Dance, Phoenix Dance Company and The Ensemble Group. She has also worked with theatre companies such as Tell Tale Hearts and Red Ladder.

Chris Goode is a writer, director and performer described as ‘one of the most exciting talents working in Britain today’ (Guardian). His work includes four Fringe First award- winning shows: Neutrino (with Unlimited Theatre), Kiss of LifeMonkey Bars (Traverse) and Men in the Cities (Royal Court and Traverse).

Venue: Army@The Fringe in association with Summerhall, Venue 210   
Dates: 11-26 Aug (not 14, 21)
Time: 17.00 (60 mins + 60 mins Koan: What If You Told Us)

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