LONDON LOVER: AN INTERVIEW WITH LIGHTWORK'S ANDY LAVENDER
"I'm conscious at the moment of not making political work with a very ostensibly social output; not through deliberate choice, it's just that I'm focusing on different things, which are more intrinsic to the way the medium ticks. I'm attempting to wrestle with process and structure. Perhaps that's not just me, my own interest. Almost as a cultural turn we can't escape the shapes in which we work. I'm very interested in how individuals express themselves within a larger network. So that sense of networking and connecting means that you can't articulate your own independent vision independently, and that has a lot of bearing on ideas of authorship and meaning. That inevitably plays out in the kind of theatre that we make and the way that we make it."
Richard Marshall interviews Andy Lavender
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3AM: Tell me first about your job
AL: I work in London at the Central School of Speech and Drama. I run the MA Advanced Theatre Practice there, which is a great course. I inherited it, I should add. We take all sorts of theatre practitioners; directors, dramaturges, designers, writers, puppeteers and so on. We get students of all sorts of age and experience, lots of international students, and make companies out of them.
The premise is that theatre is made by people working in ensembles. So the students make the work. We don't direct it. Of course we put parameters around it pretty firmly at the start, and much less so at the end of the year. What we're grappling with are principles of devising, of creativity, of teamwork, facilitating the development of people's; so for instance, making sure that lighting designers become more sophisticated designers and so on. We try and keep abreast of those mini-disciplines as well as developments in theatre as a whole. We're very theatre-oriented, so it's a principle that everything we do is for an audience. We make live events. Nonetheless, we recognise that a lot of the pressure on people making these works is by way of their interest in other media; cinema, fine art, installation or video. So my job involves me in getting to grips with production processes and facilitating students' work which the students made in a converted light industrial building, in the church over the road, in the crypt and the belfry and so on. They're looking at space, site, environment; and that becomes the focus for the work rather than any preconceived content.
3AM: Your mixing of other media with theatre; is that a reaction then to a perceived crisis in theatre?
AL: Yes, that would be a way of looking at it. Mind you, there's always a crisis in theatre. Theatre is always having to evolve. Because of new pressures of culture and technology, changes in where the money comes from and so on. The current crisis is to do with authorship. That's one of the big things which is changing the way shows are made. Who is the author of this piece of work? Is it the writer, is it the collective, is it the performer? Intelligent practitioners craft the work; so with the MA students, for instance, we're looking at the creation of theatre pieces in a much more organic and through-worked sense, through a range of inputs. You know, you start with an idea or a resource, you kick it around the rehearsal room, you do some workshopping, you bring some things in, you stand up what you've made, you create theatre collectively in a space rather than have anyone run off to the garret. That's not new and it's not avant garde but I think there's currently a leaning pressure on that as a modus operandi. And what that responds to is perhaps a larger crisis of authorship and ownership in cultural production generally and certainly since the sixties. You might place it back further into Modernism.
In any case, it means that the work is crafted as theatre, using a range of resources of the medium, even where it brings in other media. The importance of process is what I find really interesting at the moment, and this has been part of my own development. Going to university and getting my head rewired in terms of a political sensibility, being very interested in ideology and what the work meant; that's twenty years ago, since then I've become much more interested in form and structure; very controlled; and in a process-based approach that allows room for instinct, for serendipity. Which might seem uncontrolled. There's a politics of the workplace to that, although the politics of the work might appear a lot less overt. I feel I'm just beginning to learn how to strike the balances here. At some point in the future I hope these different avenues might all join up.
I'm conscious at the moment of not making political work with a very ostensibly social output; not through deliberate choice, it's just that I'm focusing on different things, which are more intrinsic to the way the medium ticks. I'm attempting to wrestle with process and structure. Perhaps that's not just me, my own interest. Almost as a cultural turn we can't escape the shapes in which we work. I'm very interested in how individuals express themselves within a larger network. So that sense of networking and connecting means that you can't articulate your own independent vision independently, and that has a lot of bearing on ideas of authorship and meaning. That inevitably plays out in the kind of theatre that we make and the way that we make it.
3AM: You mentioned your company, Lightwork. Could you say a little more about that?
AL: I started a theatre company some time ago. A group of friends and colleagues have helped redefine it over the last year or two as a more explicitly multimedia company. That's a semi-independent activity from my work although my contract requires me to do research and the major articulation of my research is through this company. And it's supported by Central in different ways, which is important, because otherwise I couldn't remotely do what I do. The company is predominantly interested in the interface between theatre and video. We're interested in exploring the question as to whether there's a third form; where those media fit together. I don't know the answer. Theatre has principles unto itself, video has principles unto itself. But I do think that there is something interesting happening when you bring screens onto the stage, you stage video images, you bring the pressures of theatre and audiences to its two-dimensionality. It becomes live in ways which are very different from just watching live broadcast. And we're working at a time when people are used to processing simultaneous images and used to very fast alterations of image, segments of story rather than single through-lines. Of course this has been happening for years and years. On the other hand it seems as if there is so much more to learn and so much more that can be done.
3AM: So is the show at the ICA, London/My Lover, about this?
AL: Yes. One of the performers in the show suggested some time ago that we work on something to do with London. He suggested that he roam around with a tape recorder and record ambient sound and activity and then we'd workshop the material. I was interested in working with video. So we turned it into a video capture project. The company gathered and we started off by roaming around London with video cameras, just looking at London and seeing what sites interested us, deciding what would be good for the project. We took from Peter Ackroyd's London: The Biography a guiding principle that London is a fleshy, organic city. We thought it would be interesting to look at London as a body. The way it has skin, arteries, a pulse and so on.
Another hook for the project was an Abba song called; The Day Before You Came, which is about a very banal day in the city, where you catch the train, you read a newspaper, and this day is marked because it's the day before you met your lover and your life was changed. We decided to hang the piece on the chronology of a day of two people who would become lovers. We decided that we'd have the characters meeting at the end of the day rather than the next day. This gave the narrative some sort of closure, made it a little more loaded. We reviewed the video footage a couple of times to give ourselves locations we were interested in. The performers are married. They live in Nunhead. That became a location. So we separated them; David's character was from Nunhead, south east London, so Lucy's was from Kentish Town, north west. We decided that their day would be perfectly ordinary, no big drama, to see what juice we could get out of that. Everything is banal, she shops, goes to a cake shop, he goes jogging, he sleeps for much of the day because he's on a night shift, and we watch their day in parallel. We pursued Dogme-like rules to help us be a bit more rigorous.
3AM: You mean the film collective, Lars Von Trier and the rest?
AL: That's right. I was taken with their rules so we invented our own. We decided to work with big close-ups to get the sense of looking as closely as we could at the city. We also knew that we wanted the show to have a live mix including onstage camerawork. So this theme of closely looking at the city as a body was transferred into looking very closely at the body of the performer, live during the show, by way of two ever-present camera operators. During the rehearsal period we had video guys re-shooting stuff we'd captured originally on very amateur footage. It was edited down a bit. Lucy and David explored their bodies through cameras in the rehearsal room, quite voyeuristic but also very tender. Then we put the whole thing together.
We knew we wanted to get a sense of the audience looking at the performer as a performer, so we created these Perspex platforms ; one for each of them, as though they're isolated on microscope slides. And we put each performer against a separate screen. The screens show the pre-recorded video of the environments, and we mixed into that the live onstage camerawork. So it was a meditation on the city; the city in its surfaces, possibly very ordinary, possibly really exciting, dirty, a real armpit but also this fantastic place that we all want to live in and move through. It's a very travelled through place. And the show is also a meditation on the body in performance. We wanted the audience to see the performers in action, a real physical study, almost biomechanical. So we emphasised the movement vocabulary of very ordinary actions. Like drinking beer and watching television. The performers began to work with exaggeration and isolation to pull out those movements.
3AM: Were there any surprises that emerged through this process?
AL: It's an experimental piece so we've only learned from the show now that it's finished. We did quite a lot of development and pre-production work, but essentially we made and rehearsed the show in three weeks. It was very intense. We got locked into certain decisions that we then had to see through to the end. This was especially the case with the video material, which enforces a degree of inflexibility. The guys who shot and edited the video stuff were working away from the rehearsal room. Next time I'd love to bring the editing much closer, so that you could re-edit stuff very quickly in the same building; a much more rapid interaction between the rehearsal room and the edit suite, although that's a resourcing issue.
We gave the audience four different things to look at at once; two performers, each on a podium, and two screens, each active throughout; which fragmented the audience's response. Some people have said to me that there were amusing things going on, but you kept it to yourself, you didn't laugh, because you didn't know if everyone else had seen it. So there was a slow-burn sense of the piece, which possibly made the audience conscious of the act of spectatorship. We also gave people an experience of time passing. We took five minutes just to have one of the characters run for a tube train, we took time to do very ordinary actions, to increase the sense of watching ordinary things really closely. Some people didn't exactly relish the banality, which is deliberate and is partly the texture of a day in the city, but others reported that when they got used to the speed of the show it was like spacing out; it worked as a texture rather than as a linear narrative, and revealed beautiful details. But the extent to which the four zones split the audience's attention surprised me.
We moved into a denouement where the performers took turns to watch each other undress, and then scrutinised each other's bodies, closely, with a camera which showed everything on a large screen at the back of the space. We wanted that to be a realm of the senses, but it was possibly a little disconnected from the rest of the show. So I learned that we need to do more to build a bridge between their concrete ordinary day and this escape zone which is sensual and which privileges the loved body. I always found what the performers did in this section very beautiful, partly because it was so neutral and ambiguous, but I think we could have done a little more with that.
3AM: Are you trying to create a new audience or re-find an audience we've lost?
AL: That's a very good question! I don't go out to do either. I'm not necessarily out to get an established theatre audience although I'm conscious of wanting to work with things that I think theatre does well; in particular to do with the liveness of an event. Those things work well for people who wouldn't define themselves as theatre-goers. If you're using the rhythms and visual grammars that they're used to, it can work. That said, in London/My Lover we wanted to work against some of those patterns; those fast shifts of information, nothing longer than bite-sized, everything very slick. Someone said to me that the show was very slick, but I saw it as going against the grain of that sort of MTV slickness, or at least implicitly asking questions about that, and stopping to savour a world and a set of actions which we ordinarily take for granted. I'm very minded of the fantastic book by John Berger, Ways Of Seeing, which picks up on influential stuff by Walter Benjamin about technology and spectating. The premise is that you see with the eyes your culture gives you. Your head is wired by the technology that surrounds you; the technology guides the representations that you're given. The next generation will be more familiar with computers than I will ever be, and will automatically think in terms of folders, layers of information, networks, scanning, complex interactivity and so on. I'm trying to get a perspective on that way of seeing, which is how our culture is configuring us.
3AM: Is theatre really best for this?
AL: For me some of these concerns are being played out in very witty ways in theatre. I think of the work of Diller and Scofidio, American architects who make theatre shows, and of Robert Lepage, whose work always feels really up to date, right in its fabric. These people are on the international theatre circuit, but in some respects there are a lot of similarities with, say, the work of some of the Turner Prize artists. Steve McQueen or Gillian Wearing are using some similar principles.
3AM: But the Turner Prize is very big. You don't read so much about this sort of thing happening in the theatre. Is that the fault of the critics?
AL: There is a vacuum in critical debate about new performance and having worked for a newspaper I know what the pressures are on an arts desk. Well, I wrote for an arts desk that had a liberal agenda during the period I worked for it. But the pressure is to give the public what they already know. It's inevitably conservative. It's also generational. There are perfectly decent critics who write about plays and translations who come from a more literary background, a more playwright-centred tradition. Younger critics will change this, although it's not quite happened yet. On the other hand there are some lazy critics around, without any real curiosity about how things are made, or why. I'm often shocked at the ignorance of people who have no idea about the sorts of work that lies behind the thing they're watching. There's a real need for more informed theatre criticism from people who you feel have some insight. But then, look at a company like Cultural Industry; they produce theatre work that's pretty sexy and gets big coverage. Good work does get covered.
3AM: Mind you it gets covered as a fusion, as installation work or Iain Sinclair rather than theatre perhaps.
AL: Yes, I guess that's true, although I don't feel like apologising for being into theatre. I am very interested in attempting to make theatre which uses contemporary resources and see what happens. Every time I do a new work I learn a bit more.
3AM: What are you working on next?
AL: We've developed a show called Here's What I Did with My Body One Day which we've just got funding for from the Regional Arts Lottery Programme. It's a theatre/video piece, much more narrative-grounded than London/My Lover. It's about three historical figures; Ernest Chausson who was a composer at the end of the nineteenth century, Pierre Currie, the scientist, and Roland Barthes, the literary critic; all of whom died in road accidents in or around Paris. So this is Paris, citeacute; de la mort. The story is hung on a contemporary character. The conceit is that he's related to a string of people who have been involved in the deaths of French intellectuals in and around Paris; and, of course, he has to go to Paris. So it's a bit of a postmodern thriller. It uses video materials to look at the awful chance of these people's deaths, and at the sorts of ideas they were dealing with; ideas about the volatility of matter, the nature of composing, the pleasure of writing, the art of living. So that's the next thing. We like to show our stuff to people and then work further on it having got some feedback. So far the audiences who have seen the piece in development have liked it. And they've raised some questions that we can work with. I'm really looking forward to doing it.
3AM: Generally, are you positive about the state of cultural work happening at the moment?
AL: That's a big question! It's hard to say. We are in a continuing stickiness. A lot of work is very bland and witless. But in my neck of the woods very mundane logistical things always create huge problems and get me silently mad. On the sorts of show that we make everyone needs to be in and around the rehearsal room for a lot of the time. And that's costly, one way or another, and difficult to make happen. Technical gear is expensive, or if you manage to borrow it, as we've done, there are various constraints, or people don't always understand why you want to work with certain kinds of equipment, or be in a space with it for a long time. One of my beefs about the British funding system is that it could usefully provide more resources for small and mid-scale companies, rather than just paying for projects. Make access dirt cheap to studio and rehearsal spaces and so on. Administration, technical gear, operational and editing time, all this is expensive and could be resourced much more imaginatively.
I guess there's a bigger question about the value of work that's being made at the moment. It's not easy to escape your own cultural definitions and determinations. I can't be someone I'm not. This used to bother me. Now I'm much more comfortable about following my nose and doing what interests me; taking some stimulus from colleagues, or getting other people excited in something that excites me, whatever its source. We make our work for good reasons but it's for other people to tell us what value it has for them. We just get on with it. We get fired up with the things we work on. We do it as imaginatively and diligently and honestly as we can and then give it to people. Then it's up to the audience to decide.