Memories Are Made of This

Marina Abramović: Lips of Thomas

Total Theatre Magazine’s Man in America, Robert Ayers, reflects on his relationship with TTM, and picks a Pathway through the print archive

First, and in the interests of full disclosure, I should start here: there can’t be many people out there who owe as much as I do to Total Theatre Magazine and its editor and champion Dorothy Max Prior. She was the person who pulled out of her hat my role as TTM’s New York Correspondent, which allowed me the overseas correspondent’s visa that kept me legal here in the USA, when I’d run out of other options. Without that stroke of ingenuity who knows where I’d have finished up. So, thank you. You changed my life.

But even leaving that aside, I am thrilled to discover this fully-functioning digital archive of everything that Total Theatre Magazine got up to over the long years of its existence in print. Congratulations to everyone involved in making it happen.

Looking through it, I am reminded that Total Theatre Magazine came at the performance world from an entirely different position to my own – as you’ll see from the History page on the archive, the first issues of Total Theatre were published when the organisation that published it still called itself the Mime Action Group – but it seems entirely appropriate that our trajectories crossed at The National Review of Live Art, which I wrote about repeatedly for the magazine. I also performed there several times: something like thirty-five years ago (!) when the festival was still called Four Days of Performance Art and took place at the Midland Group in Nottingham, director Nikki Milican gave me the run of the building’s fire escapes. I concluded the performance naked, painted silver, breathing fire, and jumping out of a fourth floor window. I don’t have a clear recollection of why. 

In fact it is genuinely unsettling for me to discover so much stuff in the archive that has my name on it but which I simply have no recollection of. Not only reviews that I wrote, but the performances that I wrote them about, and even the artists who made those performances. In the Autumn 2005 issue I reviewed a show that I’d seen at Dance Theater Workshop by the enormously successful Australian dance company Chunky Move. It was called Tense Dave and I made it sound pretty remarkable: ‘A besuited man barks nervously into a telephone and then takes lascivious photographs of his shoes; a young woman dresses in a deep red velvet gown and enacts a whole romantic adventure straight out of Jane Austen; a juicily over-amplified Sci-fi bloodbath occurs, and Dave finds himself the star of a cheesy musical show and lip-synching to Judy Garland.’ The show won 2005’s Bessie for best choreography, but of that evening I now have no recollection whatsoever…

Thus, apart from anything else, this archive serves as an eccentric and wide-ranging extension to my own failing memory. First, I’m a little bit ashamed to realise how little I wrote for the print edition: a meagre fifteen articles over seven years. I wrote a few more pieces for the online version, but I regret – once again – that I don’t recall how many of those there were. I’m also surprised to realise how late in the magazine’s history I got involved: I started writing professionally in 1983 (at more or less the same time that I was jumping out of the Midland Group’s window), the magazine first appeared in 1989, Max took over as editor in 2001, but although we worked together on one or two related projects, it was only in 2005 that I wrote my first article for the magazine. Scanning the magazine’s covers in the archive I think the first issue I even possessed was Volume 16, Issue 1 from 2004 with Helen Paris looking scary on the front with knives slotted between her fingers. Why did I get around to it so late? After all, many of my friends and fellow-travellers had featured on TTM’s cover far earlier. There was Franko B. in 1997, Forced Entertainment in 1998, and La Ribot in 1999…

The truth is I was a terrible performance art snob. I was always quick to call myself a performance artist (even though I lot of the work I made – including the above-mentioned entertainment at the Midland Group – was actually a sort of undisciplined and brazenly amateurish theatre). I shudder to think how hidebound, how un-Total-Theatre-ish I was all that time. I talked the talk of boundary-blurring and interactivity and hybridity but I was actually very choosy about where I’d confuse my categories and what I’d confuse them with. Live action and sculpture? Certainly. Performance and installation? Sure. Video and ‘certain sorts’ of dance. Absolutely. But Mime? Puppetry? Circus? Well, I wasn’t so sure… And even theatre itself seemed problematic if it meant people memorising the lines of plays and pretending to be characters. Especially if those characters had emotional or psychological stories they needed to communicate. No wonder I found magazine covers like those from Winter 1992 (with Peta Lily & Company looking decidedly expressionist) or Spring 1998 (with David Glass Ensemble looking equally so) a bit off-putting. What a fool I was.

So the new archive makes me realise how much I’d missed. The Summer 1994 issue has an interview with IOU Theatre’s David Wheeler (IOU Outdoors’ by Sarah Dawson). IOU were actually the subject of my very first published review (in Artscribe, ironically) but our paths never crossed again and reading this interview makes me really sorry about that. There’s the Lindsay Kemp Company on the front of the Spring 1995 issue. I never saw Lindsay Kemp or his company. Inside the issue there’s Tim Eagle writing about puppets and virtual reality, and Mark Cunnington writing about a Theatre de Complicite performance that sounds wonderful. In Autumn 2003, Miriam King wrote about Sankai Juku (another company I never saw) who took her through ‘an emotional and psychological car wash’ and her account just leaves me feeling jealous that Mim was there and I wasn’t. David Harradine didn’t really like the Actors Touring Company’s version of The Tempest that he reviewed in the Summer 1999 issue (and I’d normally prefer the dentist to Shakespeare) but I deeply regret that I never saw the ‘statuesque’ Rose English as Prospero – ‘a double-sexed and over-arching magician’ in a production that was ‘like a dream, or a spell, or a retelling of an old, old story’. I feel thoroughly pissed off that I didn’t see the performance by Scarabeus and Piano Circus, Landscapes of the Heart, that Amy Howard reviewed in Summer 2002: ‘Suspended in mid-air high above us, five celestial “Angels” float at their keyboards… Below them, “Humans”… abseil up the walls’! And there was Kazuko Hohki’s guided walk along King’s Road (Oh Doh, reviewed by Hazel Tsoi-Wiles in Winter 2007) that featured a ‘smirking female Aleister Crowley in feathers snorting lines of cocoa powder in a specialist chocolate shop’. I feel that my existence is just a little bit impoverished for not having experienced that… 

On the other hand, what I found most moving in the archive were the things that I didn’t miss (I actually wrote about them myself in most cases), which I haven’t forgotten, and which I suspect I never will: 

– Juergen Fritz’s wonderful Ringing a bell in dialogue with 10 bagpipe players (at the NRLA in 2010) that Max reviewed here: ‘ … Juergen slowly and rhythmically rings his school bell with pendulum arm sweeps, and one by one the pipers join in, playing a traditional tune. Then … they stop one at a time, leaving Juergen and the bell to slow down and come to a stop. Shamanic, mesmeric, soulful, spiritual: a lovely meditation on sound/silence, resonance/dissonance, stillness/movement – some shows are so simple and perfect they make you want to cry with joy and this was one of those!’ 

– Goat Island’s last New York performance The Lastmaker (at PS122 in 2008) that I tried to describe here  ‘ … clearly nothing is off-limits… the structure… of the second half derives from the Martin Scorsese movie The Last Waltz, which is a celebration of The Band’s last concert. And that is only one example of “last-ness” that it includes. There is also Lenny Bruce’s last recorded monologue… and Larry Grayson’s last stand-up routine. Then it also includes a whole range of things that the company members wanted to do because there wouldn’t be another Goat Island piece to include them in: Bryan Saner wanted to play the saw, for example (and to his credit, he does it very well).’ 

– The late Nan Hoover’s performance (at the NRLA in 2008) which I wrote about here: ‘The piece… could not have been simpler: she walked slowly through a sequence of overlapping coloured light beams. But she did this with such presence, and such assured conviction, that… she was accorded an utterly rapt silence by a largely young and excited audience. Sometimes an artist can import her own reality to a situation, even if that reality seems utterly out of keeping with what is going on around her. It was thrilling to see Hoover achieve this in Glasgow.’

– And, more than anything, Marina Abramović’s restaging of Lips of Thomas (at the Guggenheim Museum in 2005) which I wrote about here: ‘ …as the evening wore on the intensity of Abramović’s relationship with the crowd became almost unbearable. The police, the fire service, and an ambulance were all called at one stage. People cried. Others shouted out. Someone suffered an epileptic fit… there developed an overpowering sense of something horrible happening there that night, like a gladiatorial conflict, or a cock fight… Abramović herself cries repeatedly during this piece, and she lets out yelps of pain, and she has this awful way of scanning the audience with her pained brown eyes, like a helpless circus animal…’

As I say, I don’t think I will ever forget these things. They are seared into my memory, and when I try to understand why, I find myself falling back on habits of thinking about the ‘liveness’ of performance experience. But that doesn’t really hold up in the end. Chunky Move were no less (a)live than Marina Abramović, and no doubt there are people out there who remember the Australian dance company and not the Serbian performance artist. As the archive demonstrates, the published word is infinitely more reliable than individual memory. Immediate experience is a much better source of excitement of course, but in the sphere of performance that is perhaps because the whole undertaking can be so unreliable.

Max and I first worked together on a Total Theatre User’s Guide symposium on Performance Technologies at the University of Brighton in 2002. Although I hadn’t moved to New York full time yet, I was working at Franklin Furnace here trying to make sense of artists moving from live performance to online projects. We set up a link between Manhattan and Brighton and planned a collaborative event. But predictably, at a symposium on performance technologies, the technology for this particular performance failed. The online connection remained stubbornly offline. And so nothing really happened. Or I can’t remember anything happening. Yet again my recollection of live experience lets me down. On the other hand, the published word comes through. It is not here in the archive, but in 2003 the User’s Guide to Performance Technologies was published by Total Theatre. There is a piece in there that I wrote about my work at Franklin Furnace called ‘The Body of the Net’. Re-reading it I’m relieved to discover it’s not a bad piece of writing, and more to the point it serves as a far more tangible statement of what seemed important to us in 2002 than the online link-up could have achieved, even if it had worked. It makes me wonder whether that’s your next project, Total Theatre: digitising the User’s Guides. Just a thought…