Saturday August 15th, I sat in a multi-storey carpark in Peckham.
Sounds bleak doesn’t it. There wasn’t a car in sight and, instead, around 50 or 60 plastic chairs were arranged in ones and twos, circling two Steinway grand pianos. We came in also in one and twos, down from the rooftop entrance through the torrential rain, and, after navigating the one way system, took our seats. The setting was minimal, even the Steinways were bare with their lids removed, but that didn’t matter. That was almost the point.
All venues have been closed since 23rd March and the arts industry is getting desperate. In a bid to satisfy the ache for it, companies are getting creative, finding areas that can provide open-air spaces to allow for social distancing. This would be one of the first live, in real life, not-over-the-internet performances since lockdown, 5 months on. I was quite literally on the edge of my plastic seat and, looking around me, I could tell I wasn’t the only one. There was electricity in the air and that wasn’t just the storm raging around the multiplex.
The two musicians arrived, colourfully dressed and, as they sat at their respective Steinways, we all held our breath. I’m sure the pianists could feel it, the anticipation, the weight of expectation and charge in the air. They opened their scores, locked eyes, raised their hands and, as one, brought their fingers to meet the keys. In that moment a car park full of strangers was set ablaze. In that moment a car park full of strangers connected.
That is why we go to the theatre, concerts, stand-up, sports stadiums: for connection. Why we spend time and money to attend events live and in person instead of just sitting and watching from the comfort of our homes. Connection. It has been a rationed commodity these last 5 months and any culture we have experienced we have done so remotely. Perhaps you watched NT Live or archive footage released by worldwide venues. Maybe you joined performers as they live streamed gigs with exciting new content (and wow didn’t we need it). It filled the time, brought new stories into our living rooms and went some of the way to fill the gap. But everything we watched we did so at arm’s length and with highly sanitised hands. It just hasn’t been quite the same. Has it. Something has been missing.
Watching theatre/gigs through a screen is passive, it demands nothing of us except that we plug them in when the battery runs low. The screen doesn’t even care if we look at it: streamed TV will happily keep running through a box set whether you’re in the room or not. I, like the philistine I am, watched Gillian Anderson’s heart-breaking Blanche DuBois whilst doing something totally irrelevant on my laptop. Why? Because when it got too hard, too raw and too painful I could just look away and press pause. I know. What a coward! But we can get away with that at home. Not at the theatre though, woe betide the person who shouts “Alexa, stop” at the National. No, we can’t avoid the messy, painful, sticky emotions live performance makes us feel as we’re sandwiched between other members of the crowd. And, here’s the kicker: we don’t want to. It is the reason we go out to the theatre/concert hall/stadium in the first place: to experience all those emotions fresh, in the moment and with others.
Live performance allows us to live vicariously through other humans as they experience the really big, painful, joyful, life changing emotions that we don’t or can’t face in the day to day. When we are, to borrow from the musical “Hamilton”, ‘in the room where it happens’ that experience is heightened by its immediacy, intimacy and shared nature. Theatre shows us love that can raze cities to the ground; comedy’s sharp humour holds a mirror up to the world as we see ourselves reflected; we are even prepared to stand in a stadium and watch our favourite teams lose for that unique collective experience. We show up because they do and, though there might be a script to follow or an order of play, no one really knows what is about to happen: no two events are ever the same. The performers come with new inspiration, a new audience brings in a new energy and, when the two meet: electricity.
I love that electricity, it’s why I became a professional artist. That two-way connection between performer and audience builds a symbiotic relationship and each party feeds off the other. A collective connection also exists in the crowd. Research by the UCL Division of Psychological and Language Sciences discovered a unique synchronicity that develops between the audience members. This link sees a group of strangers united as their heart beat responds in unison to what they are seeing and their pulse rises and falls at the same rate. As the performers connect to the audience they connect to each other and, as Dr Brené Brown discusses in “The Power of Vulnerability” TED talk, human beings are hardwired for connectivity. Shakespeare’s fruit throwing groundlings knew it, the Ancient Romans in their amphitheatres knew it, even the Caveman who painted on walls knew it. And with the closure of the theatres, concert halls, stadiums, all venues where people can meet as a community, now we all know it.
I have felt it very keenly these last few months. Full disclosure, I am an actor, musician and writer and from March 16th I watched as one contract after another evaporated. When I was originally approached to write for you, dear reader, it was to talk about my career and journey through the industry. And, at the time, I was just finishing an incredible show in Cardiff. I had the privilege of working with two astounding actresses on a piece for the Wales Millennium Centre that interlaced music with visual, sign and spoken language. “The Beauty Parade” told of the ordinary women of World War II who were recruited, trained as spies and parachuted into occupied France, most of whom only survived 6 weeks. With such a powerful piece as a backdrop, you can imagine I was only too happy to tell you about what had led me to that stage. Now I sit down to write, it feels hollow to do so without acknowledging the massive pandemic sized elephant in the room stopping me from being on that stage.
So I started this piece at someone else’s gig, but the first ray of hope that live performance might be opening up again. And I started by talking about connection because oh my word, haven’t we learned a lot about that recently- our essential need for it and what happens when we are deprived of it. My love of theatre started in Judy Seall’s drama classes at Dolphin and my love of music, listening to my mother play piano as I fell asleep at night. Now I look back at it and sat with Pandemic The Elephant, I understand how these two mediums brought me a distinctive kind of connection. They are methods of storytelling and, if human beings are hard wired for connection, then storytelling, a fact Mr Caveman will attest to, is our favourite format. And the way I tell stories is through live theatre and music. And it turns out I like making work that no one has made before.
Art can take you out of or hold a mirror up to yourself. Its beauty is in its potential to be uncompromising and dangerous. In theatre, that connection allows us to bend and distort the audience experience. One of the first productions I was involved in to do this was “These Trees Are Made of Blood,” about the dictatorship in Argentina and the Dirty War of the 70s. Not an easy topic on the face of it but Amy Draper, Paul Jenkins and Darren Clark’s show welcomed its audiences in with humour, song and sleight of hand before pulling the rug from underneath them. The connection was visceral. From the laughter and the tears, to the angry shouts of outraged audience members and the incredible post show conversations. It is a priviledge and a responsbility to take an audience on this journey because, and it’s a bold claim but I’ll make it, noone ever comes out of theatre the same as when they went in. I have never shied away from these types of stories. In fact, more and more, I seek them out.
In tacking this kind of subject matter you can’t do so with kid gloves, it has to be head-on and wholehearted. You have a duty of care when telling the stories of real people: a duty to honour their lives and celebrate their humanity. But that duty extends to all manners of storytelling too, since you have a responsibly to the audience. You are there to show life in all its glorious technicolour, the flaws and failures, the successes and triumphs. As a performer the connection with audience is always key because it demands the best from you. You are asking them to sit through 1hr+ of storytelling so you are going to have to give them something worthwhile. They can smell inauthenticity so every time you step out in front of a crowd the stakes are high as you are pushed to be the best version of ‘you’ that you can be. I have grown so much as a human as a result of the glorious people I have worked with and the audiences that have forced me to be better and do better. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
So, it is with that, that I return to my plastic chair in a multiplex, with the sound of trains pulling out of Peckham Rye station and cars driving through the downpour. I’d not heard Messiaen’s “Visions de L’Amen” before and it came at me like a clash of cinematic soundscapes and utter chaos. I’m not likely to seek it out again if I’m honest but that doesn’t change the fact that the experience was next to religious. As the chords vibrated through the concrete floor up the legs of my probably-borrowed-from-a-school-plastic chair, I took my first deep and relaxed breath of 5 months. For 45 minutes the incredible Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy, held us suspended above the strings of their Steinways as we were reminded what it felt like to be connected. When, at last, the final dying notes echoed away around the breeze block pillars, I smiled having had a taste of how life was before the pandemic and could be again.