To Infinity and Beyond

Feature in Issue 23-1 | Spring 2011

Taking a break in a Montreal coffee shop, George Mann and Nir Paldi of Theatre Ad Infinitum spill the beans on their work together.

Nir is sitting in front of me ringing out coffee from the sleeve of his jumper, having just accidentally dunked it in his café alongé; Madonna is singing ‘Papa Don’t Preach’; the baristas speak flamboyant Québécoise French while dancing; and ice crystals fall outside the frozen window: our Odyssey has brought us to the gay village in Montreal, Canada.

We have decided to interview each other about our company, Theatre Ad Infinitum.

Nir: I’ll start.

George:: OK.

Nir: Tell me about the way we work.

George:: The way we work? Do we have a way? It depends on what we’re doing; it’s different for each project, no? When we made Odyssey we had to find a way to tell that story, when we made The Big Smoke we had to find another way, the same for Behind the Mirror – each story makes its own demands, challenges us differently, invites us to find a new piece of theatre. I don’t think we have a way, we have stories to tell through theatre, and we never know how we’ll get from A – an empty space – to B, a piece of theatre that tells the story we want to tell. There’s chaos to each process. Which is exciting, I think, and more interesting than a way, perhaps. Does that make sense?

Nir: You didn’t really answer the question.

George:: Didn’t I? You answer it then.

Nir: ‘Like a virgin… touched for the very first…’

George:: Nir?

Nir: Sorry. So… For me, our way is like this: first we decide on the theme or themes we want to explore – we might be inspired, or whatever – then second we think of the story, one that best touches upon those themes, and third we go into a space and begin experimenting with styles that would best tell the chosen story. This is chaotic; you take risks, improvise, go on a journey, and hopefully discover what you need in order to create your piece.

George:: Ah, yes, there is a way… and I would add that the third part of our way (to begin experimenting with styles) is also about finding a style that will best touch upon the themes you’re exploring too, as well as to tell the story.

Nir: Really? How do you mean?

George:: Well, with Odyssey, we decided upon one man playing the whole story, and married a filmic and iconic gestural language with traditional storytelling and text – which for us represented a bringing together of ancient and modern worlds: this style best told our story and at the same time touched upon the themes we wanted to explore with Homer’s Odyssey.

Nir: And with The Big Smoke the protagonist sings the whole narrative a cappella, and this opens a door to a means of expressing the poetry in the piece, alluding to the poets that inspired it (Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Virginia Woolf).

George:: Yes – and, traditionally, emotive subject matter in performance often employs music and song, from professional lamenters and Ancient Greek Chorus to musicals, operas and film.

Nir: And after having gone through the chaos of experimentation and finding the right style, you start a process of making choices – well, choosing the style is one of the first choices you make…

George:: It’s really a process of elimination through continually experimenting, slowly homing in, getting closer and closer to what you want to produce, say and tell – and for me I can’t always say exactly what I want, but I tend to know it when I see it.

Nir: Can we talk about the difference between creating a piece that is narrative based and uses a lot of text – like The Big Smoke and Odyssey, and a piece that is non-verbal, like Behind the Mirror or the new show, Translunar Paradise…

George:: Er…?

Nir: I think that our non-verbal pieces require a simple narrative and a more elaborate style, where as our verbal-textual pieces require a simple theatrical style and a more complex narrative – what do you think?

George:: Hmmm… I don’t think I would put it this way – I mean, I wouldn’t describe our non-verbal pieces as having a ‘simple’ narrative because – well, it’s not that simple! The construction of non-verbal work is actually very complex and hard to make clear, precisely because you can’t use words; by saying ‘simple’ it kind of undermines this theatrical genre.

Nir: Well for me ‘simple’ is not a swear word, but actually something that is very hard to achieve. I do think that Behind the Mirror has a simpler narrative than Odyssey or The Big Smoke.

George:: Yes, in a sense the narrative for Behind the Mirror could be described as much simpler – now that simple is not a swear word – than The Big Smoke; but the way you can use words to explore storytelling, and the way you can use the body without words requires two very different theatrical forms. Perhaps this is where style and story meet: the power and comedy of Behind the Mirror’s story and analogy, a man whose evil reflection tries to stop him from proposing to his fiancée, came through because of the style we had found with which to tell it.

Nir: And actually adding words would have taken away from the piece and made it less interesting.

George:: Right. And no matter where you are from and what your cultural background is, we all understand the language of the body. When you take away the words you are forcing yourself to find another way of telling a story. Not only in form but also in content. It tends to push you towards the archetypical and universal stories that touch directly at the heart of the themes you want to address.

Nir: Right…

George:: Yet words – especially in The Big Smoke, were a fundamental tool that allowed us to explore a poetic form inspired by Plath and Woolf. I suppose for us, words are a stylistic choice, like masks, puppetry, or choosing mime, or singing a whole piece a cappella – not necessarily the essence of theatre as such.

Nir: So maybe we should talk about writing too?

George:: Writing?

Nir: Well, how we write physically as well as with text…

George:: OK. Well… whereas text can feasibly be written before one enters a theatre space, telling a story through actions demands that you practically and physically write your story through rehearsal – being in the space. Writing – as in, with a biro – does happen, but for structural purposes. We write down a story idea and structure –scenes, for example – and then go into a space and try them out. I say try because you never really know if your idea or scene will work until you try, and in trying, and doing, you find the necessary solutions to any problems that will inevitably arise. So – we make theatre with words, and theatre without… How would you define the kind of theatre we make?

Nir: It’s difficult… we’ve defined ourselves as physical theatre makers until recently, but actually I like this definition less and less.

George:: There’s a problem with the term ‘physical theatre’ now, as it has come to represent numerous unrelated genres – avant garde theatre, movement or dance-based theatre. We are none of those things – and in some cases people use the term in a derogatory sense. We make theatre based in storytelling, and we start with the body. And by that I mean we don’t separate the voice and text from the body on stage, we think of them as one entity and create from this perspective, because any vocalisation is physical – everything you do on stage is, by nature, physical. So in a way, the term ‘physical theatre’ is like stating the obvious.

Nir: And on top of this, there is a danger with the term ‘physical theatre’ because it gives the impression that artists creating under this label are making something ‘other’, and separate from ‘theatre’ per se.

George:: And actually we see theatre as a word that encompasses a whole variety of possibilities, styles, genres and stories told in an infinite number of ways. It’s exciting, and in a way, limitless.

Nir: So in a sense there isn’t a definition for the kind of theatre we make.

George:: I would say it’s in the name – Theatre Ad Infinitum. ‘Ad infinitum’ as in ‘limitless’. Infinite possibility. We’re always striving to find something new. It’s a kind of anti-definition….

Nir: So by trying to define what we do we impose limitations, and we don’t want to do that. Maybe we should talk about where we’re going, creatively, artistically?

George:: You’re right. Well, we’re still walking the line between text and wordless theatre aren’t we? First, I’m creating Translunar Paradise, a piece using full-face mask, and a photographic language du geste style. It’s inspired by a poem of WB Yeats called ‘The Tower’: ‘that being dead, we rise, dream and so create Translunar Paradise…’. The character writing the poem, an old man who mourns youth and lost love, inspired the idea of the story of a very old couple: the old woman dies of cancer, and the old man can’t move on – he makes tea for two, and lives as if she were still alive. So she comes to him as a phantom and tries to find ways of helping him move on, as they both recall their lives together – from first kiss to the moment she passed away. I’m really enjoying the process, but it’s really difficult because I’m directing, and I’m in it, and behind a bloody mask so I can’t see what’s going on…

Nir: Shall I come in and help as an outside eye? I think it would be very helpful.

George:: Me too. We’ll sort a time out…

Nir: OK.

George:: And then secondly we’re creating Family, which you’ll perform and I’ll direct.

Nir: Yes. It’s based on my life growing up in Israel, and how I experienced the conflict between my country and Palestine. It begins with my return to Israel after five years. I face an ongoing conflict, a complicated history and an identity crisis that I share with an entire nation. Confronted by my own memories, those of my family, and those of the Jewish people, I have to tackle the complex love-hate relationship I have with my country and attempt to start a dialogue… We want it to be a journey down a rather turbulent, stirring, yet comic, stream of consciousness.

George:: It’s a challenge dealing with such explosive subject matter, and it seems to demand a very simple approach to the storytelling, because both the themes and stories you tell are enough… But it’s weird directing you.

Nir: Why? What do you mean?

George:: I mean, it’s like a role reversal, you know, after Odyssey when you directed me… now I’m directing you – it’s interesting.

Nir: Yes, but that’s another story, and we should probably round this up, no?

George:: Yes, you’re right.

Nir: So how shall we end it then, the article?

George:: The way we started. In a gay café in Montreal. Madonna singing in the background.

Nir: Life is a mystery? Everyone must stand-alone?

George:: I feel sick.

Nir: (To the barista) Excusez-moi? Avez-vous un sac plastique, s’il vous plaît?

Theatre Ad Infinitum is a Lecoq-trained international ensemble based in London that develops new and original theatre for a multicultural audience. The work of Jacques Lecoq defines the fundamental principles behind the theatre they make: company members all share a passion for innovative theatre-making – with and without words – and create using improvisation and the universal language of the body.

Theatre Ad Infinitum UK is lead by two artistic directors, Nir Paldi (Israel) and George: Mann (UK). Theatre Ad Infinitum have also recently created a base in Canada led by artistic director Amy Nostbakken (Canada) who is working together and independently with the UK team.

Education and continuing professional training are a core element of the company’s work. They have an ongoing educational programme for schools and universities, and run weekend masterclasses for professional practitioners, inspired by the pedagogy of Jacques Lecoq.

Past Productions: The Big Smoke (2010), highlighted in the Scotsman’s Best of the Fringe 2010; Odyssey (2009), winner of The Stage Award for Best Solo Performer 2009, shortlisted for a Total Theatre Award 2010, and Mervin Stutter’s Pick of the Fringe 2009/10; Behind the Mirror (2008), the Observer’s Best of the Fringe choice, shortlisted for a Total Theatre Award 2008, and Mervin Stutter’s Pick of the Fringe.

Work in development: Translunar Paradise (2011), premieres 5 July 2011 at mac in Birmingham as part of BE (Birmingham European) Festival as the recipient of a BE Festival Development Award 2010; and Family, which is planned to premiere in 2012. The company also have a long-term ongoing work in development, The War Project.

For more on the BE Festival at mac, see www.befestival.org

For further on all the company’s projects and dates for 2011 shows and workshops, see www.theatreadinfinitum.co.uk

Referenced Artists

This article in the magazine

Issue 23-1
p. 16 - 19