Wednesday, 24 July 2013

From 'The Ridiculusmus Book of Making Comic Theatre'

When they first saw each other in ‘the carpet room’ of the Poor School in 1990 Dave and Jon didn’t talk. They just eyed each other warily, as if they knew it was only a matter of time before something would happen. David did an impression of a stork for ‘animal study’ that Jon was rather impressed by and a couple of terms later Jon recited ‘Ode to the Asshole’ by Rimbaud, which David found downright peculiar. Cast as Polonius (David) and Hamlet (Jon), they ignored any direction they were given, devised bits of comic business and cut most of Shakespeare’s lines because they got no laughs. When David invited Jon back to his studio flat for midnight beans and toast Jon wasn’t that surprised to find David only lived two minutes away from his own abode in Nunhead, one of the cheapest and most inaccessible areas of what could still be called London. As they talked, ate the beans and toast and drank copious amounts of tea, more coincidences emerged. Before enrolling at the Poor School David had attended the same university as Jon and had done the same drama course that Jon had done there seven years earlier. They’d read many of the same books (or at least David thought they had) and shared a theatre-making language. It was derived on the one hand from Peter Brook, Grotowski, Stanislavski, Berkoff, Beckett, Pinter, Brecht, Keith Johnstone’s Impro, Albert Hunt’s Hopes for Great Happenings, Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty and John McGrath’s A Good Night Out, and on the other from hours of improvising in devising rooms. David confided to Jon that at school and university he’d been called ‘Mad Dave,’ and Jon confided to David that at school and university he’d been notorious for being depressed.

Two years later, still meeting up for the occasional midnight beans and - if they could afford it - toast, David and Jon began to lament the fact that in their final shows at the school the imaginative leaps they’d struggled to make during the course were being thrown away for the sake of commercial casting. They were given roles as similar in age, sex and outlook to the most smiling and willing versions of themselves they were prepared to be. On one level this was understandable. The profession was notoriously competitive and to get a foot in its door perhaps one should play to one’s strengths. But David found it reductive and humiliating. He really should have left. Everyone was skint. They were expected to go in during the daytimes, so unless you had a very willing employer unemployment was the only option. David managed to hang on to his job by disappearing or pretending to be sick. Jon was sacked from his position as an insurance clerk. To save money he took to walking from Nunhead to the school in King’s Cross, and then to Kentish Town for their final year shows. A fellow student once took pity on him and hid a loaf of bread in his jacket.

By 1999 they’d been running a successful theatre company for seven years and their lives had markedly improved. Jon was living in an industrial unit in Belfast, sleeping on a piece of foam on a tabletop while mice scuttled around him in the dark. On the other side of a divide his colleague David snored on a futon bed. He’d told the caretaker of the building it was part of a stage set. They had to switch all the lights off at 9pm so as not to alert suspicion. They weren’t meant to be living there. It was rented out to them as office space. For seven years they’d shared the administration, driven up and down the UK putting on plays and, in spite of most people never having heard of them, received critical acclaim. Yet they couldn’t afford a home.

The making process was intense. They had intercourse, became inseminated with an idea (often simultaneously), gestated it, gave birth to it, christened it, nurtured it, created a profile for it, sent it to college, bought it a cappuccino machine (or at least a hand pump milk frother), shared awkward family gatherings with it, took it to board meetings, indulged in sordid affairs (side projects) and opened a building society account for it (got a grant and took it on tour). But ultimately they had to let go, move on and have another child together, occasionally holding embarrassing orgies with collaborators drawn from an expanding pool. Basically it was a marriage.

But what kind of a marriage was it when your idea of a meal together was a selection of pre-packaged salads and cartons of M&S custard and fruit compote carefully laid out on a futon in an industrial unit? Did you really want to renew your vows and reaffirm commitment to a partner of seven years who was engaged in similar catering activities two feet away on the other side of a glass divide? Was this a life at all? Was it really worth the sacrifices? What on earth did they think they were doing? Had they ever really stopped to think? Perhaps, Jon thought as he saw a family of mice making its curious way to David’s side of the office, a couple of them ferrying a fragment of a multigrain bap, perhaps one day they should sit down and write a book about it all. But that time wasn’t now. There was a farting sound. David had woken up. He thought he’d heard the caretaker pushing some post under the door, so he got up and shuffled over there to get it. ‘It’s come,’ said David timorously, waving a white manila envelope containing the result of their application for revenue funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. He opened it. Jon was sitting up expectantly on his piece of foam. Their grant had been slashed in half. During a performance of ‘Dada’ Jon had been so deeply in role that he had told a member of the council’s board to piss off. ‘Oh God,’ groaned David. The caretaker heard him and barked out some expletive. ‘I’ve been having some complaints,’ he said (a reference to one from David about kids flicking shit on the toilet walls). But David didn’t really care. He read the rest of the letter, which concluded by telling them that the days of experimental theatre were most definitely over. ‘Oh God,’ David said again, ‘what are we doing?’