On the ‘minimal performance’

Interview with John Hall

Part III

HS: You were talking about the minimal … do you want a cup of tea?

The ‘minimal performance mode’ I’m interested in that, where performance is, in readings.

I think it was Chris Goode who was saying at the talk that he’s increasingly suspicious … I will quote him wrong … of learning texts … he felt he wanted the script in front of him, that it somehow felt more authentic … and I’ve heard poets say that, about readings, I’ve heard poets say they don’t learn their poems because it would somehow not be authentic.

[Chris Thorpe talking to Diana Damian:

…The deliberate choice of reading rather than memorizing points towards the immediacy of the act. ‘It takes the focus away from the memory trick of knowing and learning. I want to take away the kind of tight rope walk that can distract when you’re watching someone speak a lot of text… it’s not about watching someone perform a skill, but engaging with storytelling as a form of conversation…’ ]

JH: I’ve heard the opposite too, if you can’t learn them they’re not authentic … Chris Goode, Andy Smith, Lone Twin … there’s a distinction between the bits they call ‘Lone Twin Theatre’, which are pieces that the actors, or performers, learn. When Lone Twin perform themselves, they make a point of a clipboard.  Which I find interesting, because it feels to me it immediately signals that there is a text that is absolutely present, and that you or I could pick it up and read it.

Lone Twin 'SledgeHammer Songs'
Lone Twin ‘SledgeHammer Songs’

There was one night during Chris’ residency, where Chris and Theron were going to perform, to read, perform, some texts by Andy Smith. They tossed a coin to see who should read what – which exaggerated the sense of the provisionality of the actual performance in the moment. But there was this text, like with the kind of poetry I was brought up on – there is the primacy of the text.

There is a kind of minimal performance mode, which in a way says – you’re lazy, you should be reading this in the quiet of your room. However, I’m reading here, and I shall do my best to approximate to how you might read it – which of course doesn’t work … you’ve got an audience, no two of whom would read it in the same way.

There’s an interesting thing that happens with poets, who are in many senses reading extremely well, poets such as Ed Dorn, interesting page poets, but what happens is that once you’ve heard one of their very effective readings, you’re locked into it. It’s a sonic spectre, there every time you read the text. It’s one of the reasons why Jeremy Prynne refuses to do readings … why should the poet’s reading of the work be privileged…?

HS: So in a way, by having the text there, the reader or writer is signalling that this is not how it should be. Poets who learn their work are saying – this is the version of the text, this is how I want it to sound … but a poet that mumbles from a page is saying – I don’t want to be here, this is not how this work should be communicated, please look at it, please buy the book.

JH: Yes and if you belong to the privileged audience, you’ll be able to ‘get’ the poem anyway … I would distrust myself if I was in anyway theatricalising the text. If I were bringing the elements of theatre to it. Poems are not theatre, on the whole, although it’s quite possible to read poems that are mini theatrical sketches.

HS: But then we have to go into what is theatre, the differences between poetry and theatre … because aren’t theatrical elements … probably we mean something different by those words because for me, that ‘theatricality’ is part of the writing, part of the poem.

JH: You’re right, I’m not going to disagree, I’m just making the distinction between work that uses the conventions of theatre, theatre, even Chris Goode’s work, even Lone Twin, call on some of the Aristotelian oldies. Certainly in the case of The Disappearance of Sadie Jones, there are characters, personae, in a very particular life situation or set of life situations.

HS: Yes, but that is not what defines these pieces as theatre, because you can also have pieces like Crimp’s Attempts on her life, Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis, that have no character specification, no location, none of the things you mentioned –but we still see them as theatre.

JH: I don’t know those pieces so it would be good if you could say more…

HS: Attempts on her life is 17 scenarios for the theatre, each scene is very short, there are no characters, just dashes for different lines, you can perform it with any number of performers, sex, age …The only thing that is similar in the different scenarios is that they are always talking about ‘her’… Attempts on her life. So one scene is very much like a cut-up poem in that it’s using text from car advertising, she drive at this speed, she’s shiny … they talk about her as if she’s a car. Another is called ‘All messages deleted’ – there are messages from different people on her answer machine. But the messages don’t align with each other.  Every time something is established it’s then destabilised so you can’t get to the end of the piece and say ‘she is a young woman, she is like this, etc’ because she is constantly being rewritten. You can perform the scenes in any order…

But I’ve always thought, and this can also be applied to poetry, that although lines are not assigned and characters aren’t specified, as soon as you put something on stage you are making characters. As soon as you say to a female actor, read this as if you’re a news presenter, you are assigning all those things to the text that the writer left out. The same perhaps could be said in poetry, as soon as you have a person standing on stage in a particular time and place, we are giving it the properties that make theatre.

JH: One of the answers might be, with the two authors you’ve mentioned, is that they have identified themselves up until those pieces as presences in the world of theatre; these aren’t trivial categories – you place yourself.

HS: It’s not trivial but it can be accidental. It can depend on where you studied, who took up your first work  … Tim Crouch for instance, he’s identified as a playwright, working within the theatre world, but I’ve heard students and other writers say that his pieces ‘aren’t really plays’ that they are ‘performance art’. The problem is that they say this in a dismissive way, as if this means that ‘playwrights’ don’t need to consider his work.

JH: I would be really interested in what can happen when something that is, by whatever set of accidents or choices, usually billed as theatre, gets billed as poetry or the other way round. This must happen to you: you are given a choice or not a choice.

HS: I’m not given a choice!

JH: So you know what I mean. So much of what has constituted late modernism has been people within a certain genre, fighting it. Fighting it from within it.

HS: Yes, and if they were not in it, would their work lose its urgency and its interest because they wouldn’t have anything to fight against? It’s the borders that make their work …

JH: Probably, we’d need to look at real instances. These are crude –  let’s call them economical and sociological ­– signals about what kind of thing this piece of cultural activity is, which bit of a library it will appear in if published, or shown. Yes, that is absolutely part of the tension it seems to me. I’d be very surprised if you or I don’t expect the stuff that interests us to be extremely knowing about its generic provenance, to be absolutely knowing within it. I don’t mean like ‘I’m a poet I’m going to write sonnets, let’s get on with it’  – not that kind of knowingness, but the knowingness that says, ‘how come we’re still hooked on sonnets, what are they?’

HS: Yes, work that acknowledges its frame, that says ‘you are walking into this theatre with a particular set of expectations’. A lot of the work I’m interested in does that, the playwright Will Eno for instance, he acknowledges the form and he finds drama in the fact that there is an audience sitting there, it’s half seven in the evening, and these are actors. It’s strange to me that ‘drama’ assumes there’s a need to forget the reality of audience, stage and actors.

JH: One of the things that interests me about poetry in its live reading mode, is that it’s an incredibly insecure public genre. On the whole, people don’t know how to behave … The poets performing are muddled at best, but in spite of all the years, audiences don’t know how to behave either. If you watch a classical music audience, they know exactly how to behave, and that’s part of the pleasure.

HS: Yes, and perhaps that’s why spoken word is so popular, because audiences know how to behave and performers know how to perform, they’re not scared of microphones, they know the rules of the game.

JH: I knew Andy Smith as an MA student in Dartington, we kept a bit in touch, very often there is this troublesome ‘I’ – one of the distinctions between lyric poetry and theatre. Lyric poetry is supposed to be unembarrassed about the ‘I’ while theatre is aware it’s a problem. So in Chris’ residency I was seeing the ‘I’ of my friend  Andy Smith being taking on at a toss of a coin by Chris or Theron. There’s a Lone Twin example, ‘Daniel hit by a train’ – on the night that I saw it the performer was Cynthia Whelan, certainly a middle aged, woman, her lines are ‘ I am Gregory, I am eighteen’… she was playing a male eighteen year old. If it hasn’t already happened, you realise at that point that this is not someone filling out a character but someone performing a liturgy…

Tim Crouch and Andy Smith. By Katherine Leedale
Tim Crouch and Andy Smith. By Katherine Leedale

HS: Although you don’t lose character, you have more characters. Because then you have the character of the woman, the performer, and you have the character of Gregory, who we will see as a character.

JH: It’ s not Gregory, I’ll have to remember the name.

HS: Shall we call him Gregory … it depends how the piece works, but we are used to storytellers taking on other roles, other voices, other characters, and it doesn’t stop them from being characters, it’s just more revealed, more explicit, the performer and the persona.

JH: It’s borrowing some of the joys of playground simulation … you be Gregory… and I’ll be … I imagine that’s pretty universal in children’s games.

HS: Tim Crouch works with objects in interesting ways … they become characters … Can we go back to this thing of theatre, the way you used the word theatre?

JH: I’m already beginning to regret that.

HS: It’s just something that I have to wrestle with in my work so it’s useful to talk it through. I wonder about what happens when we use labels that are not in our own disciplines, so for you, ‘performance writing’ will always be used correctly as that’s your area, that’s a label that you own, if you choose to use it, you very much own it as it was coined at Dartington, so it can safely be used to discuss your work. However, you don’t work in theatre, therefore I wonder if when you use the word ‘theatre’, you’re using it from an outsider perspective … when we use labels that are outside of our own work, we tend to think of the worst aspect of those labels. So when people use the word ‘performance poet’ they will think, like a bad stand up comedian, not very literary, cheap rhymes. And when you say theatre maybe you’re thinking ‘over acted’, ‘dramatic’ – aspects that are indicative of bad theatre, the clichés. When you use the word theatre in a negative sense, as in ‘poetry is not theatre’ – I wonder if you’re thinking about those negative elements of theatre.

JH: All I can say is a fair cop, I probably introduced it as a word, ‘to theatricalise’, I was probably thinking of it as one of those things people within theatre would also want to avoid.

HS: Yes, ‘theatrical’ is often seen as a negative thing.

JH: I talked about this with Chris [Goode]; if I remember rightly, the word ‘theatre’ is important to Chris, and it’s important at times for his stuff to be thought of uncomplicatedly as theatre, and so I suppose what I wouldn’t back away from is a number of things … one is that I don’t think any of these terms have become redundant, no one’s done away with them however much they tried to, so there is a mistaken essentialism that says there has always been something called ‘theatre’, something called ‘poetry’ and we can distinguish what they are. That’s mistaken partly because historically, if you take the two forms, loosely, poetry is never going to be the same again once literacy is established: where poetry is written, it is going to go through a radical transformation, through technology, a profound change …

[…detour about liveness]

HS: I suppose what I was saying with the poetry thing is, is it not still poetry to write a piece in which the way in which space is used, even if it’s simply, is within the text itself … so the poetry doesn’t happen until the performance. Is that not still poetry?

JH: First answer is, does it matter? But that’s undercutting what I said … One of the things about the tradition of poetry I find myself in is that it doesn’t have stage directions. I’m not saying that’s the thing that defines it … it doesn’t say read this bit quietly, walk on … think how few directions there are in Shakespeare, there are those divisions into scenes.

HS: Whereas Beckett’s stage directions are very specific. They are part of the writing.

JH: Defining it.

HS: Yes, he has pieces that are only stage directions.

JH: I suspect with a bit more time and thought we could put our minds onto things that are manifestly poems that have invoked the conventions of theatre by building stage directions into the poem.

HS: Possibly. Or do they even need to be written? Poems written for performance may not have stage directions written in because it’s not about the script. Because no one else needs to pick up that script and perform it. For instance with my work, some of it I can’t write down but I know there’s a specific way of performing it. It’s not about the written text, it’s not written down.

JH: If we’re thinking about a reading … one of the things coming up is that there is no more one theatre than there is one poetry. There are those poets who write for the page and who refuse to read. Not just because they’re terrified, but for very good reasons. They are saying that they don’t want to get in the way of the multiple performance of reading silently that happens when any one ideal reader encounters the text. One of the things that is counter to performance is the poetry that is founded in ambiguity, for instance in there being three ways to negotiate a line.

HS: Yes, as soon as you perform it you’ve made a choice.

JH: You have to, that’s one of the definitions of performance. Whereas the visual representation of the poetry on the page doesn’t. And there are very interesting ways of reading silently I think, that keep it all in play, to hear three versions almost at once.

HS: So when you are in ‘minimal performance mode’ what is that?

JH: Well, the primacy for me – and a huge responsibility – is that the bloody thing that got written before is there, and it’s non-negotiable as a text.

HS: Why is it non-negotiable?

JH: Just as the Beckett estate says a Beckett text is non-negotiable … even after his death.

HS: So you see your texts in the same way?

JH: Partly I do, and that’s partly because I have never worked in a mode that has drawn on improvisation. Very often what writers mean by improvisation is not what performers mean at all. There’ll be modes of playing around, generating text, but I’ve had more than one uncomfortable dream about the need to improvise on the spot. The classic. A massive audience, not one like I’ve ever experienced … With the kind of stuff I’ve written, you can fill in the gaps.

HS: But very few writers improvise like that, only some MCs. – I’ve done some performances that I would say are improvised but I am never inventing the poem on the spot in that way, I don’t know how connected that is with the fixedness of what you have on the page. If I improvise in performance, I’ve always had a lot of language to work with, I’m making choices about what I’m working with, what I choose and what I repeat and the rhythm and dynamics and all of those properties of the text.

JH: I’m sure that would be recognised by jazz musicians – a head score, you are working to something.

HS: I have those dreams as well – usually I have to be on stage and I vaguely know the play but don’t know the lines. But that’s not a reason to then look at your poems and say, this is fixed … I suppose the question is, how are you true to what you’ve written? Performance is a different form.

JH: I’ll put it in a completely different way, without wanting to negate what I’ve said … which is that at the time of the minimal performance it doesn’t matter who wrote the text.

HS: Really? So how are you reading it? Are you reading it as if you are discovering it for the first time? As if you were writing it on the spot?

JH: No, because if I’d been asked to read someone’s else’s work I would always rehearse…

HS: So you rehearse … but then you read it as if it’s written by someone else?

JH: Well, as though it doesn’t matter who wrote it, it’s not quite the same.

HS: And what does that mean?

JH: The earliest poems of mine, poems that I might be tempted to read now, were written in or just before 1966 when I was 21. I’m 68 now. To what extent is that 21 year old, me? I’m sure all people with a body of work would identify with this…

HS: You get distanced

JH: Yes, and sometimes you want to disown it…

HS: True. You don’t normally read those ones in public.

JH: No, but I mean I then get caught up in the fact that those ones I feel uneasy about, people connect with.

HS: Do you have that same feeling of distance from work that you’ve written very recently? If you wrote something today, performed it tomorrow?

JH: Yes, I think so. But that probably has quite a bit to do with a way of writing, and I’m going to avoid the word theatrical … but the poems that are not something that have an emotional or affective shape … outside the language, that the language is trying to reproduce … it’s not ‘this poem is about a terrible experience’ …

HS: Is it going back to the ‘I’? That if there is no ‘I’ in your poem then you will not feel that Identity, personal ownership…

JH: Or that even if there is an ‘I’– at the moment of reading it, who is that? Anybody can write ‘I’; there’s no law against that. So as soon as you start to organise as a writer, to organise material in a way that is not just a surrogate … you were talking about writers of fiction wanting writing to be transparent … but with a poem, what would the transparency be? With some poems it’s clear, poems that are about subjects such as a baby being born, for instance, those are things that are outside the poem. For many people a poet’s job is to be clear to this thing that is outside the poem. To convey it to an audience or readership. If you don’t write that kind of poem, then, the ‘I’ is an irrelevance, who is it? There’s a way of reading that is not claiming an identity between the one who performs and the ‘I’ who is a character…

HS: Is there? Because that seems a very hard thing to avoid … if you are using ‘I’ in the poem and you are performing the work, it’s very hard to stop the listener from identifying those two ‘I’s with each other. Which can be frustrating, or it can be a fun thing to play with…

JH: It’s why so many poems of the last few decades have explicitly made that their matter. As a way of seeing people off, or hoping to.

HS: Even if it’s not about the ‘I’, the personal experience. Isn’t there still some connection, with you … I’m thinking about this thing of distance … I guess it’s about communication … if you’re trying to communicate something in the reading, then you can’t be distanced from the text. Is that true? Maybe it’s not.

JH: You’ve thrown in a far worse word than ‘theatre’

HS: Did I say ‘emotion’? Oh –‘communicate’

JH: And then you added that vague term ‘something’

HS: Should I give an example? I’ve a piece called ‘prosthetics’ – it’s got nothing to do with me, I took a line from a documentary made in the US: ‘forty percent of those with prosthetic limbs will go back into war’ and a few other sentences ‘it’s a positive thing’, ‘Amputation is the next step in rehabilitation’. So I just took that first line and made it into vowel sounds and layered it, applied various procedures to it. But when I perform that poem, I am communicating … something … of war … something of prosthetic limbs…of amputation … of a child looking at her father and describing him as a monster … I’m not distanced from that material in the performance of it, and the performance of it, makes meaning…

JH: You see, I think in that case, I don’t think you or I can claim … communication requires more than one party.

HS: It does, I agree, but you still have communication in performance even when the audience is not responding verbally, there is still a two-way exchange.

JH: But what you stress, we’ll struggle with language now … communication is a process, and there is a theme, a topic, and the topic is outside, it preceded the performance piece, and is being referenced by you. It is probably the source of strong affect for you, which will very likely transfer to an audience … but I wouldn’t go further … I’m trying to distinguish between this notion that this performance is … the blunt way of putting it is that this is quite explicitly about something, you could have a note in the program, the note itself is going to predispose people to hearing it in relation to its subject.

HS: But if you didn’t have that note…

JH: It could communicate affect without the particular meaning coming across

HS: Which would be fine also, that’s the point I suppose, that it would have some emotional impact on the audience.

JH: Let’s make a distinction, your example wasn’t given as if it was about you. I’m just picking up on the idea that you didn’t choose the subject randomly but because it mattered, so there is the autobiographical insight offered…

HS: Yes, you can still say, why did I choose that topic and why did I choose those sentences. But surely you could say the same about your work. There is still an author there making choices.

JH: And those choices continue  being made in the performance.

'o now' by John Hall, in Shearsman Gallery
‘o now’ by John Hall, in Shearsman Gallery

2 thoughts on “On the ‘minimal performance’

  1. This is all really interesting and deserves another read but on the question of theatre/performance/poetry….. I think theatre is evolving and boundaries are starting to blur and I think that that is a good thing. Tim Crouch is a theatre artist (his words) and comes from a theatre background yet has been taken/welcomed into the family of ‘performers’. Chris Goode is also very much at the heart of the ‘performance’ family and yet all his shows are theatre, IMO. I still see performance art as something that grew out of a visual art background that is becoming more and more associated with theatre performance. And in terms of poetry if you look at Kate Tempest, her show ‘Brand new Ancients’ was hugely received by a predominantly theatre going audience at the Edinburgh festival this year, playing the Traverse, known for its new theatre writing. I just think we are not boxing product as much as we used to and performance is becoming the buzz word because its easier to tour to festivals in the current economy. Of course this is only my own observation but this conversation is thought provoking.

  2. Re: the urge for authenticity, I always feel it to be reductive. As in, it takes the artist into smaller and narrower spaces and moments in the work.

    Is an urge for credibility more open/useful in this regard? It’s ‘make (and) believe’ we are engaged in.

    Thanks for great and pertinent blogs.

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