Friday, February 13, 2009

Right then, I think six weekly posts are going to be about my limit. Thanks to all who commented on my previous musings and faintly existential crisis about what the point is of committing this drivel to the internet, but it’s nice to know that at least four of you have some vague interest in hearing it.

As it happens, I have more material than usual this month due to just having got back from America, where I was attending the US premiere of How To Disappear. It was great!

Not only was it the first foreign production I had been able to attend, it was also my first time ever to the United States. At the risk of sounding like an excitable adolescent who’s just lost his virginity, I have to say I absolutely loved it. I suppose like many Brits I had never got round to visiting before as I had always prioritised more exotic locations for holidays, and America feels so familiar because it’s there whenever you turn on the TV. But whilst you’re there, that odd sense of familiarity mixed with strangeness makes you feel a bit spaced out, like you’re in a film, which of course is how most of us experience America from outside, through drama. It was exciting and unnerving at the same time, like having taken a mild hallucinogen.

[Sorry, those of you who go to America all the time will have heard all this before. But indulge me, it was my first time.]

I was in Portland, Oregon – which lots of people told me was a great place to start as it’s one of the most cultured and liberal corners of the US. The whole city has such a relaxed atmosphere, lots of artists’ collectives and galleries with late night openings and play festivals and microbreweries and local organic food and a bookshop which took up a whole block. Everyone was so proud of their city, and not in an annoying small-minded way, but genuinely because it was such a brilliant place with such an exciting DIY can-do ethos, much like the people themselves.

There’s something very refreshing about the openness and honesty of Americans, and it really made me realise how, by comparison, our own culture is steeped in cynicism, sarcasm and world weariness. Now I’m as guilty of that as anyone, and don’t get me wrong, there’s times for being cynical and questioning about the modern world – not least for the humour it can generate. But what I loved about Americans and America was that everything is so much more simple over there.

I know what you’re thinking. Your cynical, sarcastic British mind is thinking I mean ‘simple’ as in ‘stupid’. But you see, that’s a sign of your world weary culture having turned you into a git. I mean ‘simple’ as in ‘straightforward’. Simple as in plain-speaking. Simple as in honest. Americans say what they mean and mean what they say. There’s no having to read between the lines, or catch an ironic tone of voice, or pay attention to raised eyebrows or knowing smirks or double meanings and ulterior motives. Things are much more as they appear over there. And you know what? It made me into a nicer person. Honestly. Because Americans are genuinely pleased to see you. All the time. And that was so infectious.

A typical conversation went something like this:

American: Hey, how you doing?
Me: I’m doing great!
American: Great!!
Me: Yeah!! How are you doing?
American: I’m awesome!!
Me: Yeah?!!
American: Yeah!!!!
Me: That’s awesome!!!!!!
American: Awesome!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Me: I’ll have two coffees please.

And that was just in shops. Imagine how pleased the company were to see me.

[Those of you who don’t want to hear about the ins and outs of how great it all was should maybe skip the next bit. You have to remember that my Mum reads this stuff too.]

When I arrived in my hotel there was a hamper of local organic Portland produce on the bed, with a card and a signed photo of the cast. They’d already flown me over there, and paid for the hotel. That was just the start. There were dinners and lunches and drinks and more presents. At press night they made me stand in the auditorium while everyone clapped. The show got a standing ovation. A news report about it even ended up on Oregon’s state TV! (You can watch it here.) The whole experience was amazing. In fact I think I would go so far as to say it was awesome. I’ve certainly never had a British theatre company make such a fuss of me.

Portland Center Stage were the company producing my play, and it was totally fascinating to see how they’d interpreted it, entirely independently of me, and through their own cultural filter. The director, Rose Riordan, had done a stunning job - as well as being smart and savvy and an all-round pleasure to meet and hang out with; as I knew she would be ... I have a couple of spies in Portland who told me in advance how well regarded she is.

[Those of you who are bored of hearing about How To Disappear might want to skip to the end at this point, because I’m going to compare the two productions. Forgive me the indulgence but it was the first time I have ever seen more than one version of a play of mine, so I want to get it down for posterity. Hey, I’m a writer. This is how I order and digest the world.]

The US production was completely different to Ellie Jones’s productions in Sheffield and London. Both were slick and stylish, and benefitted from great casts and stunning lighting, sound and set designs. But the American version really was like watching an adaptation or a translation of the play. All the Americans I spoke to commented on how British it all felt to them, which of course it would – they did it all in British accents for one thing. The London and Essex place names naturally evoke a sense of the exotic for them, which always made me smile, especially applying that word to Essex. But to me there was something decidedly American about what they had chosen to highlight.

For example, much more of the play was directed out towards the audience – not just Charlie’s bits but many of Mike’s sections about the minutiae of exploiting bureaucratic systems. The effect was that it became much more about selling en masse the dream of escape and renewal - or the nightmare, as of course it turns out. Charlie’s big speech in the middle of Act One was much more nightmarish; unlike in Ellie’s version, where the rest of the cast were employed as an ensemble to act out the scenes as he describes them, Rose’s version stripped that right back and had Charlie speaking alone, with increasing desperation, as atonal sound effects and unsettling light flashes built up around him as his hysteria peaked. The difference between the two, looking back, was that Rose’s version emphasised the psychological intensity of Charlie’s breakdown, with the result that the play became much more a story of an individual man’s demons. Ellie’s interpretation, by contrast, emphasised that it was the world he inhabited that drove him mad. The physical language with which she illustrated this was perhaps more European in sensibility, whilst Rose’s lingered far more on Charlie’s loneliness and suffering – there was a good two-minute section after his speech where we watch him silently tremble as he binds his broken, bleeding knuckles in toilet roll.

An American friend I met up with out there said an interesting thing: ‘Americans are in love with individuals who push themselves to the extreme in search of themselves.’ This really seemed to fit with what I saw. Although Charlie doesn’t really have that many redeeming features, they liked him, and went with him, because he was the vehicle in which they could travel to vicariously explore their own darkest fantasies. They admired his pursuit of the truth about himself – even if that journey turned out to be ultimately meaningless.

In a way, the play had come home to roost, because the self-help books about identity change which I read while researching it (of which How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found had the best title – so I nicked it) were all American. There aren’t any British ones, so I had to read the US ones and extrapolate. But what was so great about them was that they somehow managed to link the whole dubious enterprise to the American dream, and the idea of ‘self-actualisation’, which is a much more significant tradition there than here. In changing your identity, they’d have you believe, you’re not running away from yourself but rediscovering and becoming who you really are.

[Those who are really bored should maybe call it a day here. I don’t think it’s working out. It’s not you, it’s me... I won’t mind if you want to start seeing some other bloggers. It might be for the best. I’ll still be in your browser history, maybe we should take some time out and see where we’re both at in a few months...]

The decisions about the set were great too. Both productions had chosen square-ish sets with lines going off to vanishing points, but whereas Ellen Cairns’s black walls brilliantly sloped to one side, suggesting a world off-kilter, Chris Rousseau’s clinical white box, criss-crossed with hard, straight lines suggested a world viewed through broken glass – and also a morgue. In this way the US production was more fatalistic from the outset, implying that Charlie is already in the morgue at the start of the play, and that everything from there on in is a fantasy. His fate is sealed before we even start.

(Are any chief examiners reading? Put this play on your syllabus, I’d write you a stonking education pack.)

There’s a slideshow of images here, and a great 'resource pack' the company put together with an amusing glossary at the end, translating all the UK-specific slang and cultural references. Whilst those of you who give a shit about things like critics can see what they thought of the show here, here and here.

I found out something else interesting while I was there. The play is on for 8 weeks (I know!!) and apparently the reason for that is because of the comparative lack of government funding of the arts in America. Companies have to be a lot more resourceful as a result, and go to great lengths to cultivate groups of subscribers (ie. season ticket holders who get discounts for booking for every show.) Although we do this in a small way over here, in the States it’s huge. PCS alone have 10,000 subscribers on their books! So the first 3 or 4 weeks of any run is entirely booked up with them. If the general public want to get a shot at seeing it then they have to come in weeks 5, 6, 7 and 8. But how great to have that long for a show to build up a head of steam! Over here the reviews have barely come out before the bloody thing has to close. I think we could learn a lot from that. Apart from anything else the royalties are so much better, providing greater security for artists which (dare I say it) may well encourage them to take a few more risks.

Talking of risks, I was lucky enough to be at PCS for the final week of Nancy Keystone’s epic Nazi Germany / NASA space programme / Civil Rights Movement drama Apollo, which had been 7 years in the making (7 years!) My god, what a show. It was a Complicit√©-style saga set over 30-odd years of American history, starting with the hunt for Nazi rocket scientists after the defeat of the Third Reich, how they were absolved of their crimes and granted US citizenship to come and work on the NASA space programme, through investigations and recriminations in the 60 and 70s – then, brilliantly, because NASA was based in Alabama, and cotton harvested by poor black workers in near-slavery conditions is an ingredient in rocket fuel, it drew a direct and provocative parallel between the treatment of the Jews under the Nazis and the recent history of black Americans. It was a stunning piece of visual poetry from start to finish, alive with big ideas, grand historical narratives, and breathtaking ambition. I loved every second of its 3 and a half hours. I was so impressed that a theatre company would invest over such a long time (7 years!) in a show like that, with 20 in the cast, a challengingly complex form, and a tough message for an American audience to hear. I can’t think of a comparable show or process over here (7 years!) The sheer scale and brilliance of it all made me a bit sad that we don’t take such risks any more (if we ever did).

Only in America.

I will definitely be going back.