The Grove of Academe

Feature in Issue 14-4 | Winter 2002

David Woods of Ridiculusmus has spent the past year as an MA student and here explores the attractions of academia and the joys of reflective practice and archiving.

Ridiculusmus were ten years old this summer and to mark the occasion Jon Hough and I1 developed a few plans – to write (and then try to publish) a book about the experience and our discoveries, and to present a season of revivals of all our shows since the beginning.

Rather like the millennium celebrations, we were unable to contain ourselves and started the project a year early with the retrospective season lined up for May and June 2001. Sixteen different shows2 were meticulously rehearsed and produced into a cluster of events gathered around a four-week run of Say Nothing3 at Riverside Studios. Two days in with only Dada music4 and ARSEFLOP illustrated5 performed, Jon’s lung collapsed6 and all I could do was throw myself off a bridge into the Thames.7

With the 2001 attempt to articulate what we were or what had led to our current state deflating itself we gave up on the retrospective plan and looked for ways to develop the book idea. By chance I saw a little blue poster for a new MA in Practice as Research (PAR) offered by the drama department at the University of Kent. I thought it would be a good way to discipline myself to write something.

There were other reasons for going back to study – escape, de-cluttering and re-writing the history books.

Escape

At times of crisis or exhaustion I often dream of giving up. I’ve applied for arts admin jobs (the administrators seem to be the ones who get all the money and kill off the art): I thought it could be a good outlet for subversion but the mind numbness and standard plastic lies are unbearable and too ridiculous, and I’d rather live in the van than that. I’ve tried other jobs – painting and decorating,8 packing salads in sub-zero in Folkestone with other aliens, van driving, early morning cleaning and even drama workshops but the separation from the coal face of creativity was more painful than the theatre hardship.

Our funding has always been minimal and forced us to live from long and exhausting tours. London Arts board once gave us £3000 in project money and after five years of trying to grasp at the slippery ladder of revenue funding the arts council of Northern Ireland awarded us £6000, then £10,000, then an incredible £20,000, then cut it in half forcing us to give up our efforts with them. Feeding and accommodating two people at this rate is barely possible, let alone developing new work. Homelessness and Safeway savers potatoes have been regular friends for a long time.

The Academic Escape Route

Another escape route I had long thought of was the academic one. Plenty of Poor School and Ridiculusmus colleagues had opted for it, though mostly at secondary school level. The idea of prioritising discipline over thought and the experience of umpteen soul-destroying schools workshops meant higher education was the only option. It was an escape route that apparently offered access to resources, holidays long enough that we might be able to carry on working or even a research position that might be compatible with creative outbursts, albeit on a smaller scale.

But the problem was how to get in there when you have only a BA and not a great desire to write theses on aspects of performance studies, GrotStanKantBauschForced or other such darlings of the academic world.

The practice-based phenomenon that the Kent MA was a fecund part of seemed to offer alternative attitudes. Reflect on your own practice while still doing it.

De-cluttering

Having lived out of boxes for the last three years or so, de-cluttering is an ever-present need. When you de-clutter you become more portable, gain a sense of progress, of putting something into its place in its essential form. Unhindered by irrelevances so that it (the information) is more accessible, easier to use – rather like taking all the cellophane and packaging off your shopping when you get home from the shops and putting the empty plastic bags into the bag drawer or sock and the fruit in a bowl – a dip – the wrapper from a cake, a photocopied dog, two broken yellow rubber gloves emerge…

A Dutch student placement attempted to organise it for us last year and had a nervous breakdown.

The course was a good motivation to sort it out.

The History Books

I mean things like A 20th Century Performance Reader, Contemporary Theatre, In Yer Face Theatre, Modern British Theatre… annually reinvented under different glossy covers so that so many of us happily part with upwards of £15.

Apart from a paragraph in Dymphna Callery’s9Through the Body and a footnote in a book on Flann O’Brien10, Ridiculusmus are not mentioned in anything. This despite ten years of work that we considered more cutting edge than the dull slickness of contemporary theatre, funnier than the banalities of the stand-up comedy zone, and more progressive than the indulgences of the supposedly experimental live art scene. I wanted to see if these Maoist feelings were true and to address the question of whether we were of any relevance to the development of theatre or not. Whether we had something to say or were, in the words of John McGrath: ‘an egomaniac subsidy-sucking pseudo democratic group of freaks, performing rubbish for an elite of similar freaks’. 11

Articulating our practice seemed to be a good way to start this particular journey. A self-published result – perhaps a doorknob to those broader ranging tomes.

The Course

With this three-fold purpose I plunged in. The Kent course is organised into a practical presentation and a 20,000 word dissertation. The general idea being to ask and answer a research question(s) – in my case: ‘What do Ridiculusmus do?’

We created a new piece of theatre which would be the lab rat to test the variety of theories on. I feared that the creation of theories and constant analysis of a work in progress would kill off any creative impulses and result in a dead performativity.12

Before we began I wrote:

‘It is a great fear that in analysing the magic of creativity you kill it.’ I want to ignore the suggested reading so that the work can flourish. ‘Only bad work can be written about,’ said Jon the other day, quoting some academic text or other on his reading list. Tim Etchells calls it, ‘The attempt at capture, a dragging down of the ephemeral into the fossilising mud of all that is fixed and fixing.’13

To get over the fear I ignored the conventional rituals until after the practical work was made, simply recording some thoughts on its progress to go with the saved drafts of text, occasional videos of work-sharings14 and mini-discs of early free-form15 improvisation sessions.

Afterwards the contextualisation became a joy – following peculiar whims of thought that dip into art, pop music, football, business management, literature and food recipes. Everything from chewing gum on the pavement to discussions of transculturation are invigorating. For this alone the dabble in PAR is worth it. The course at Kent runs every calendar year and accepts late entries, digs in Canterbury are cheap, it is commutable from London and there are some of the most interesting and alive academics in the UK in the department. The cost is reasonable at £3000 odd – When you consider that you have unlimited studio space for 2-3 months, a production budget of up to a £1000, access to a well-stocked library and unlimited internet access, and at the end, hopefully, a piece of fine paper and the chance to wear a funny hat again.

Notes

1 Remaining artistic directors of Ridiculusmus: first there were three (us plus Angus Barr) then four (plus Kevin Henshall) then five (plus Lucy Cuthbertson) then four (minus Kevin – disappearing money, now a teacher), then the original three (minus Lucy – artistic diversion, now a teacher), again then two (minus Angus – filmmaker).

2 The Shows were in order of opening:

Radio Ridiculusmus (on air 17 May - 17 June all day via website!) Things to do (on Radio Ridiculusmus, 17 May)
Dada Music (BAC Studio 2, 17-19 May, 9pm)
Arseflop Illustrated (Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret, 21 May, 6.30pm)
Say Nothing (Riverside Studios, 22 May - 17 June except Mondays, 7.30pm, 6pm, Sundays)
The Dive (Hammersmith-Kew, 27 May, 1pm)
The Overcoat and the Nose (Shunt railway arch, 28 May, 8pm)
Where are you from? (BAC Studio 2, 29-30 May, 8.30pm)
Paranoid Household (15 Sprules Road, Brockley, 4 June, 6 and 8pm)
The Exhibitionists (National Theatre Olivier foyer, 7-9 June, 1pm)
Yes Yes Yes! (Soho Theatre, 7-8 and 14-16 June, 10pm)
The Third Policeman (secret venue, 8 June, midnight)
Three Men in a Boat (The Museum Of, 10 June, 2pm)
AGM (The Friends House, opp. Euston station, 16 June, 2.30pm)
At Swim-Two-Birds (secret venue, 16 June, midnight
Film Night (BAC, 17 June, 8.30pm)

3Say Nothing is a loving attack on apathy in the warzone that is Northern Ireland at peace. It is based on our time there from the 1994 ceasefires through the Good Friday agreement euphoria to the 1999 Omagh bomb.

4Dada Music was the result of a desperate attempt to raise money in 1999. It was only possible to get funding for new shows and as we were still busy working on The Exhibitionists4a and Yes Yes Yes4b we had no urge to develop anything so came up with the idea of doing a dada revival biopic and touring it around peculiar venues.4c We got the cash and spent it on glossy art books and Edinburgh fringe costs.4d

4aThe Exhibitionists was an attempt at a silent comedy so we could tour more overseas. It ended up as a physical comedy with whispering about art gallery attendants and their efforts to alleviate boredom.

4bYes Yes Yes is our vision of the world. It was made on several trips to India between 1994 and 1999 and drew on a lot of mental health experiences, personal and otherwise. It is a celebration of failure, an exposure of fake gurus, an adventure in identity and inoffensive racism.

4c Dada tour dates:

July 1999

Monday 12
11am Back seat of Nissan Micra car parked outside the White Horse pub in Saintfield Co. Down – because the pub was shut.
3pm Table nearest the toilet and shop in Mountstewart National Trust coffee shop, Co. Down
6pm 91 South Street, Newton Ards, Co. Down

Tuesday 13
3pm Reception, Moume Country Hotel, Newry
5pm The Square, Crossmaglen
7pm Pat Fairon’s House, Ballgassoon, Co. Armagh

Wednesday 14
1.15pm Ballygawley roundabout, Co. Tyrone
2.15pm The gates of Castle Balfour, Lisnaskea, Co. Fermanagh
3.16pm Picnic tables, Florence Court forest park near Belcoo, Co. Fermanagh

Thursday 15
10am The public conveniences, Derry road car park, Strabane
11.30am Grounds of Gransha psychiatric hospital, Derry Londonderry
2pm The peak of Dart mountain, The Sperrins, Co. Tyrone
4pm Glenshane pass layby, Co. Derry Londonderry

Friday 16
6pm Squash court no. 1, Lame Leisure Centre, Co. Antrim
9.30pm Arrivals exit, by the bus stands, Belfast international airport

Saturday 17
12.32pm Small fishing hut off the track down to the Giants Causeway, Co. Antrim
4pm The pet food aisle, Sainsbury’s, Coleraine
10pm Starboard seats close to the green stairs, Stena HSS Belfast to Stranraer (9pm departure)

4d We played two shows at the 1999 Edinburgh fringe: The Exhibitionists at the Pleasance Upstairs (11am slot) and Yes Yes Yes at St Brides (11pm in week 1 in the main hall and 3pm weeks 2 and 3 in the clap clinic down the road) as part of the Continental Shifts programme. We won the Total Theatre Award for Best British production (Exhibs and YYY), a Herald Angel award (YYY), were nominated for the Granada media comedy writing award and lost about £7000 in venue hire, accommodation and publicity costs over box office income.

5Arseflop illustrated – a performative5a lecture on our working methods.

5a See glossary of acadamian 5a1 terms.

5a1See glossary of acadamian terms.

6 Spontaneous pneumothorax (collapse of the lung generally happens to young ‘pushing 40’6a lean men.

6a Jon as Liam Brady in Office – a work in progress show commissioned by the Barbican about two ideas men with no ideas, which will change its name and content for its premiere next year. Jon variously quotes his age as anything between 20 and 60. I am 33, same as my waist size.

7The Dive – an outdoor derive7a starting with plastic food in the Starburger café, King Street, Hammersmith, with a shopping-not-buying fashion exploration with Jack Straw on the election trail, a clarification of the illegality and risk of death of diving into the Thames, and ending with me diving off Kew railway bridge into the Thames.

7a A term borrowed from the Situationist movement for unplanned artistic walks and actions of a free/long form nature.

8 This summer Jon and I offered our services as The Boys in Blue Overalls – DIY basics at £5 an hour. We earned £350 each.

9 Dymphna is head of drama at the University of Wolverhampton and author of Through the Body and numerous articles and reviews for this magazine. She knows Jon from university days at Sheffield9a and our work through performances at the Real Action project in Liverpool 1999. Later she became one of our network of understanding digs in Liverpool and Wolverhampton and arranged gigs for us in Wolverhampton.

9a Jon, Dymphna (early 80s) and I (late 80s) all studied English literature at Sheffield University and took the practice-based theatre option curriculum B.

10 Flann O’Brien (aka Myles na nGopaleen) is the author of At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman (amongst many others), two post-modern novels that we adapted in the 90s and toured around the UK and Ireland to great acclaim.

11 McGrath, John, Naked Thoughts that Roam About, Nick Hern Books, London, 2002, p112.

12 Performativity – see glossary of acadamian terms.

13 Etchells, Tim, Certain Fragments, Routledge, London, year forgotten, p71.

14 The work we made was shown in altered states every night for two weeks in a residency at the GFZK gallery in Leipzig in late August-September prior to the MA assessed performances – which were also recorded.

15 Freeform is what we call an open-ended improvisation session. They are without rules or plan. In sharing this system with newcomers we have found that there is however a certain amount of necessary pre knowledge for these sessions to succeed in terms of taste and working language and to some they have been difficult to endure. This is for a variety of reasons – their need for direction, for context, exhaustion, their feelings of disempowerment and so on. The main point however of the system is that any possibility is allowed freedom to be expressed.

Glossary of Acadamian Terms

Acadamian: Made-up word referring to language used only rarely outside an academic environment, eg hegemony, palimpsest, liminal. Named after the nuts, which is what it drives you after a short period of exposure.
Hegemony: Domination by one – like Arsenal in the premiership until Wayne Rooney’s goal.
Liminal: Another made-up word related to sub-liminal, perhaps meaning on the edge of awareness, perhaps not.
Palimpsest: Layers.
Performativity: Academic abuse of dictionary. Meaning to refer to anything to do with performance. Generally used to describe and excuse awful productions in an academic context that brilliantly illustrate some theory or other but are dull, humourless, badly directed and written, with abysmal acting.

Ridiculusmus are performing Say Nothing and Yes Yes Yes at the Barbican until 4 January. For more information see the company’s website www.ridiculusmus.com

For information on the MA practice as research at the University of Kent contact Dr Paul Allain - p.allain@ukc.ac.uk

Referenced Artists

This article in the magazine

Issue 14-4
p. 16 - 18