Monday, March 05, 2012

Flying Solo

"All Flying Soloists to Space Five please! Could all Flying Soloists please come to Space Five! The winner will be announced in one minute!"

Exchanging agonised glances with one another we sat down. A chequered floor had been laid for the dance event that was coming up. The dancers were limbering up behind us, chests out, legs up and bend and stretch, staring ahead. A hush descended slowly. In a row we sat, some holding hands, but I couldn't, I just clamped mine between my knees and looked at Lydia to my left and Keisha to my right and Sophie beyond her, and I thought, I bet I look like they do. Wide, time warped eyes, waiting to know. It had been two and a half hours since we pitched, and that time had passed like sea sickness.

The music was turned off and Baba Israel spoke about the week, about how great we all were, about how difficult the decision had been to make. He thanked people and the crowd showed their agreement with cheering and clapping. He went on to say again how impressed they had been with our pitches, those short, achingly long five minute held breath moments.

"...but there was one person who we felt was really ready to make this piece of work."

None of us breathed.

"Can I get a drum roll, please?"



I left the flat later than I had intended, which I almost always do. Cycling the five minutes to the theatre I berated myself - I had imagined arriving half an hour early, to sip coffee and exchange excellent pleasantries with my fellow participants. Things never being the way they are in my head, though, I locked up my bike, rushed in and had managed to lose my notebook and my jacket before I realized that I wasn't really late at all. Well done, Léonie, I thought. Great start.

The first workshop was run by Ernie Silva, a performance artist from Brooklyn, New York. His New Yorkness was thrillingly demonstrated during the fire regulations at the beginning, when the phrase "do not use the lift" had to be translated. "Elevator" explained Baba. "Riiiight" came the reply.

We did introductions, which is often the worst part for me. The question of who I am and what I do is more likely to bring me to snotty tears than if I was asked to do a contemporary dance about the political situation in Liechtenstein. For some reason I always err on the side of self-deprecating, and end up convincing myself and everyone else that I am a twelve year old with no self-esteem and even less performance experience.

We began.

"It all starts with the word" said Ernie. We nodded earnestly and wrote that down.

Some writing exercises started us off, then short discussions. Experimenting with storytelling and picture painting (metaphorical) we learned about hot buttons, those words that immediately evoke emotions in the listener/reader. At some point I wrote down "WATCH WHOOPI LIVE ON BROADWAY" like that, in capitals. I also have a list of comedic techniques, plus examples. I have also written down "sometimes you have to kill your baby", which I assume is also metaphorical, as I can't remember the bit about infanticide.

In the second half I learned that the narrator of the show is often the most vulnerable. There were some tears, but not from me. I felt like my most vulnerable moment was the very beginning, having to explain why I deserved to be there. It wasn't put like that, obviously, this not being reality television and/or the army, but it felt like that in my tiny little insecure mind.


Daniel Bye is very different from Ernie Silva. Shorter, for one, and considerably more English. We played lots of games on Tuesday, discussing how to tease an audience, and all the ways you can summon their interest like a snake charmer. We told each other stories, then told them to everyone else.

Tuesday felt like it was about stories, and how to tell them. About how to relate to people and how they relate to you, how you as a performer come across to an audience, and using that knowledge to jiggle things about. Also, Ste told an excellent story about a boy called Corn Beef Keith, which I plan on remembering for a while.

Tuesday was also the Sophie and I told each other that it was perfectly acceptable to go for a glass of wine straight after the workshop finished.

It was, of course, fine to have a glass of wine. The second glass was probably less wise, and then we went to see Daniel Bye's show, The Price of Everything. One of the great things about the week was seeing the performances of the artists we were working with, putting their pearls of wisdom into the context of their work.


Sophie, Lowri and I had seen Fergus's show on Monday, and loved it. The workshop started bang on time, and Fergus had planned every minute meticulously. We were to be, he told us at the start, like investigative journalists, making copious notes. Anything you observe, anything that strikes you, he said, write it down. I completely loved Wednesday. We explored the whole building, worked on observing each other and ourselves, and by the end had created performance in spaces all over the theatre.

One of the most interesting points for me was Fergus saying that, even if you want to create autobiographical work, you are a finite resource. There is only so much of your own experience you can plunder before you need to move out beyond yourself. Hmmm, I thought. Interesting. I wrote it down, investigatively. I only have so many stories to tell, I told myself. And that's including the boring ones about cheese.


On Thursday we sat in a circle with Sabrina Mafouz and did a lot (a LOT) of talking. My notes from that day are still in my investigative journalist style (I think I imagined myself in a fedora with a spiral bound flip notebook). I have written down things people said ("I love a good silly rap" - Sophie. "Oh, Canada! Never again. It's just trees, trees, trees" - Debs, quoting her mother. "I had a nice thought after being sick" - Ste. "I just take loads of stuff in and then - POP! - something comes out" - Keisha. "I just think, I can be more man than any man in the room" - Dionne. "IS THIS FREEDOM AND LIBERTY?" - Lydia) and drawn lots of people floating away on balloons, which is something I do when I am thinking. Actually, all the talking and discussion was a lot more tiring than the previous day had been.

Sabrina, as I saw later on when I watched her show, is great at writing in other people's voices. She clearly has a gift for observing and recreating people's linguistic idiosyncrasies, and I feel it's a shame we didn't spend any time in the workshop finding out how she does it. I would have asked, but I hadn't seen her show yet by that point. I made a note to ask her next time.


Later on Ste said that, as the only man in the room, he found it hilarious how all the women start behaving with Bryony Kimmings. I mean, I want to disagree with him, but I can't. And I can't speak for anyone else, but I can feel myself doing it - getting all giggly and wanting to make brilliant jokes, many (really, many) of which fall thuddingly flat. But I can see why we do it. Bryony's workshop was excellent - high energy, funny and weird, with lots of bad dancing and well-managed examination of our work. "This workshop" she said at the beginning "is called Performance-making for Idiots". That's my kind of title, I thought, and probably giggled or made a bad joke.


"So" continued Lowri "what I mean is that you've all won anyway, because you're here. You were selected out of sixty artists, so it's really not about the pitch. But you know that, don't you?"

We all nodded. And earlier in the week it really had felt like that, and we had all said it to each other a million times. It's not about the pitch. It's not about winning, we've all already won. Etc.

Suddenly, though, it was Saturday. P-Day. That evening at six o'clock each of us would have to stand on stage and show Manchester, London, Amsterdam and New York exactly why we were the one to be selected for support and funding. Just as suddenly we all began to feel exceptionally nervous.

Lowri had been asked to spend Saturday with us to help us with our pitches, and she was great at it - calm, organised, positive. It was such a peculiar day, though, testing things out, helping each other, but being very aware that we were in competition. At about four thirty Sophie was doing my hair for me in the theatre bar. As she pulled the straighteners through we both muttered our words to ourselves. From a distance it might have looked like two friends having a conversation, and any other day that's what it would have been. That day, though, bar the odd joke about her trying to sabotage my pitch by burning my hair off (cue nervous laughter from both of us), we were practicing. Going over and over, in case anything fell out of our heads before our allotted time.

Time slunk by and Space 5 filled with people. The judge from New York appeared by telepresence (it's the future!). The judges from London, Manchester and Amsterdam took their seats at the long judge-y table with the red cloth and jugs of squash (judges' squash, I thought, and wondered whether it was tropical. Probably just orange, I decided. This isn't X Factor) and we all loitered at the sides.

After a few introductions, we began. Five minutes each. It was... weird. I mean, performing is one thing, but performing in a direct competition with other people? Totally bizarre. The hype and the tension, the anxiety, wow. I had spent the whole week trying to convince myself that it wasn't about the pitch, that it was about learning and development, but in the moment? My GOD it felt like life or death. Even writing that now seems ludicrous and embarrassing, but honestly, I bought into the competitive thing in a massive way on Saturday night. All those times I have seen some reality TV show contestant weeping at a camera and thought, oh for God's sake it's just the stupid X Factor, and now I sort of get it. I am so humiliated to say that, but there it is.

We performed our pitches. When I came off I was shaking, although I don't think I shook when I was up there. I was aware of my left knee cap trembling (I like the fact that when the rest of me can look calm and composed, only my left knee betrays my true feeling), but I think I only felt the true weight of the nerves after I came off.

Two and a half, deep-breath white-wine hours later, and we were back.

"Can I get a drum roll, please?"

"The winner of the 2012 Flying Solo Commission is...


Sophie Willan!"

Sophie leapt up as if someone had just electrocuted her chair. She tore up to the microphone.

"I know I probably shouldn't say this but... FUCK YES!"

We all jumped up to join her, and I have never seen a smile like it. It's not often you get to see someone in a moment of pure surprise and happiness, and it was gorgeous.

I took myself for a little walk and sat on a step, probing for my reaction.

I am gutted, I decided. It's OK to be gutted. But not 100%, thoroughly gutted, because the week was incredible and I learned so much and...

I paused, wondering whether I was thinking the last bit because that was what I should be thinking.

Nah, was the conclusion. I'm pretty sure it's what I really think.

I went back in and found Sophie. "You know" she said "when you just don't think it'll ever be you? You know when you just know it won't be you?"

"How do you feel?" she asked.

"Fine, honestly. A bit gutted but, if it had to be anyone else... I'm glad it's you."

(I am aware that I had to say that, but it was, and still is, true.)

And with that, we got some wine (most of my stories end like that, even the boring ones about cheese).

The adrenaline and wine all caught up with me at about 1.30 on Sunday morning, when we were all out dancing furiously. I suddenly just burst into tears, and stood outside the bar with Lowri and Sophie until Ben took me off for takeaway ("can I have two slices of cheese on my veggie burger?" I snivelled) and some sleep. The next day Sophie texted to see if I was OK, and we decided we both needed to have a little (read: big) think about what happens next for us. And it has suddenly become full of more possibilities than we had considered before.

I hadn't thought I deserved to be there, but I think the week and the work I have created through it has changed my mind.

What an epic week! (What an epic blog post...)

And, wow, I have got some serious, thrillingly possibility-strewn thinking to do now.