In advance of their performance for the Live Art Theatre Season we asked Sedated By A Brick about the show and their practice.
Would you describe your work as ‘theatre’ or ‘live art’, or do you find yourself at the boundaries crossing these concepts?
Gareth - I like to think we use the elements of each to complement/question/bring into tension the elements of the other. We tend to work quite conceptually to start with in a way similar to a lot of live art - exploring multiple strands and ideas in a way that poses problems and questions that we do not necessarily wish to answer or solve in the course of the performance. But we also like to play with very theatrical techniques - choral work, narrative and character, for example.
I would say overall that we label ourselves a ‘performance’ company rather than theatre or live art. Performance covers a broader spectrum of work and is a more general term that allows us to be freer in what we utilise without worrying too much about whether it fits into a particular principle or rationale.
Fraisia - I guess that we make what we make- borrowing from all kinds of disciplines- not just theatre and live art, but TV, Film, the Internet, lonely hearts ads, radio, journalism, novels etc. We believe in using techniques that are appropriate to the work we are making- we are led by what is coming in the future- blindly feeling our way, but knowing when it is appropriate for the field we find ourselves in. I think that the terms ‘live art’ and ‘theatre’ are more useful for marketing and producing than making. Perhaps they are good for audiences too- to give an idea of what is going to be seen…. sometimes it is interesting to think about, but perhaps when considering your ouvre- to gain some perspective against other companies- no-one is in a bubble, but when focusing on the making stage, it is more useful to use all of the tools that you find in your hand...we believe we should be open to all kinds of technique and research, rather than closing ourselves down.
Neil - Working trans-discipline certainly means we can use techniques & ideas from either 'theatre' or 'live art' whilst less tied to conventions and expectations, which works for us. We don't come from one school of fishes.
Someone described cross-working like this as being sat on a faultline. Really the borders are many, potentially prismic, and are always changing. Exciting but you don't want to get lost. We've learnt to avoid the tyranny of structurelessness by being pragmatic - willing to use the forms that best capture what we want to make - more akin to a performance group.
but yes I wish our work would sit nicely & be good in one area - it would be easier to sell!
Do you find there is an element of friction between what is seen as the ‘staged’ of the theatrical and the ‘real’ of live art?
Fraisia - Absolutely and that is why we situate our work on this crossroads. It adds an element of mystery for the audience/viewer to not know at which point what they are seeing is ‘real’ and what is ‘staged’. We are not so into the ‘virtuoso’, we want the excitement of the story and the situation itself to meld and unwind into something beyond our performance.
Neil- As a default, I'd say, we are open to a transformation of both ourselves and our ideas, that whilst mimetic and theatrical is open and honest & shows process. In practice, rather than causing friction, blending performance states opens new avenues. Our influences & ideas gather and form an all-inclusive smorgasbord buffet & we pick at those things we like.
In SKAB, we use so many words that they takeover the performance, and it really is primarily made of what we say. We use conventions of group storytelling & choral performance to bring them out. As a group, we share characters & identities out amongst us. Neither the subjective 'real' or 'staged'. By de-corporealising ourselves & ideas we are in a better position to objectively comment on real things. We are less likely to either personalise a character or make it epic.
This show is about this friction & people's incompatible perceptions of what a live show should be - in particular it parodies concerns over whether something is over-theatrical or too real. Fusing a narrative about identity-crisis & possession, we exorcise all the words. so I think we're pretending. I hope we're pretending!
But Staged or real? - that's the grandmother of arguments. We've all got these labels & tribes of thought. Try whispering 'rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb' to a real performance artist and see if she understands! Try telling a thespian to be himself! In Sedated, we are idiosyncratic, we like being enthused with a purpose rather than worrying whether our style looks big in this. We have found ways to use theatrical devices in artistic experiments and still show our intent.
Gareth - I think there can be, but it depends how you frame it. We are aware of tensions between ‘real’ and ‘staged’ and play with these, particularly in this performance, but perhaps more in a metatheatrical way, looking at constructs around narrative and character and disrupting these by inserting ourselves as characters and then versions (or caricatures) of other people into the narrative.
One of our reasons for making this show was a response to the number of metatheatrical shows we had seen which very explicitly reference the performance devices and techniques and relation between the audience and performers on the stage (examples are GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN’s ‘External’ and a large number of works by Forced Entertainment, who are also part of the Live Art Theatre season). We wanted to see what would happen if we tried to push this within a more direct narrative piece, with ourselves as part of that narrative, and where we could take it.
What was the process you went through when devising the work, what compositional techniques did you use and how did you rehearse?
Gareth - We always begin devising through exhaustive discussions. We find something that captivates all our attentions - it could be an image, a concept, a sentence or piece of text - and then discuss thoughts that connect to this or spring from it. In this instance, we ended up with three main strands of interest (and within these a number of other areas of interest to explore): the idea of an alter-ego theatre company, Serrated By A Knife possessing us, the idea that both companies were working on stage adaptations of The Shining, and the ‘characters’ of Kate Bush, Elton John and Bernard Manning.
Having agreed these, we had a period of ecstatic writing, and all contributed the core text to play around with. We edited the piece using a Google Doc, so all the words were jumbled into one document and then we played around with them, moving passages around, copying and pasting, chopping up text and interlacing, finding potential ways to combine the narrative strands, trying to make sense of the confused mess! We were getting bits up on their feet, trying to find the right way to perform the show, and presenting various experiments to audiences to test these different ways of performing. We did a number of scratch performances of the work in London, Bristol and Manchester (including here at BLOP in 2012) and tried a different format for performing the show each time, adding and removing devices that worked or didn’t, and slowly finding our way to the very direct presentational format we use in the show now.
We also work very consciously as a collective, painstakingly editing the show together over a few months. We do not have a director as such, so we had to feel our way through the material and try to make sense of it from within. We also feel that this collective ownership of the show allows the constituent elements of the show to feel very non-hierarchical; nothing and no-one takes precedence over anything or anyone else.
Did you feel, when conceiving the piece, that there was something that had to be told, or did this develop organically in the process of creation?
Neil - This one has been in there for a while - I think it definitely had to get out much like our alter egos- there's a line in there about a tale that has to be told - but it made its way out through an organic process, a distillation.I love working with Sedated - we have a very playful process of setting each other tasks, inventing our own rituals and physics, creating our own logic.
I remember looking at the painting Saturn Devouring its Children by Goya when we were working in Spain and asking whether we could imagine giving birth to another theatre company.
SBAB1 (If Destroyed Still True) was a silent piece, with no spoken language. The piece we're showing at Arnolfini is quite the opposite. It is an over-production of words - an excess of language - that is continually shaping the piece. We created the words and the forms of the words through a process of long-writing & talking.There was this idea of showing different people, but we had to find ways to differentiate between ourselves and our alter egos/characters. We developed particular quirky language - talking in plurals - adding 'o' or 'a' suffixes - using polari or eggypeg.
We were interested in how we showed a group identity speaking / how to embody popular ideas, memes, public opinion. Fraisia and I made pitchforks to create a mob and got people to join in hooligan chants. In the end we created this character - The Internet - a modern Oracle - who occasionally comes down to smite the characters.
Fraisia - I think we are organic creators. It all began with The Shining. One of us saw it on the TV and then asked if we could ‘do The Shining’. Then, we had the idea of making up an alter-ego theatre company that accidentally comes into being and how the world of the internet might be the situation in which this could all happen. We often explore many ‘parallel truths’ and try to smoosh them together. Like a jigsaw with all the wrong pieces and a sledgehammer…. we often come back to the notion of the ‘barely contained’- we might drop the ball at any point, but we won’t let ourselves- the tension is always there- the work is full and wriggling to burst free… to get away from us.
Gareth - I would say it starts organically, finding the things we are interested in and then at some point committing to trying to fit these elements together, even if they may not seem to all quite fit. I actually think the alter-ego theatre company came first (Neil invented Serrated By A Knife as a concept as he thought his mother didn’t believe Sedated By A Brick actually existed!). Fraisia saw The Shining on television and asked if we could use it (lots of the themes from The Shining felt like they resonated with our first show, If Destroyed Still True). Kate Bush came from a football chant - “There’s only one Kate Bush! One Kate Bush!” and then we started to play with repeating her name and warping it, so it became Burning Bush then Burning Man then Bernard Bush then Bernard Manning. So we had Bernard, and then when warping his name we got to Melting Man then Melton Melton Elton John. So suddenly we had these three ‘characters’.
Once we committed to these three main strands, the process became an ‘organic’ attempt to ‘inorganically’ mash them together. It felt a lot of the time like there was ‘one thing too many’ but at any one time this could be a different strand! We’d then address this imbalance and another one would suddenly crop up elsewhere. So we would have to continually check in on the elements and see how they were working, and sometimes force them to toe the line!
What’s next for you? What are you working on for presentation in the future?
Gareth - We aim to try and tour this piece to some other venues, once we have got the ‘big push’ out of the way to make the finished version for Arnolfini!
We have been thinking about a number of things to work on. These include perhaps making a film version of our first show, playing with some smaller pieces we have worked on and pushing them a bit further, and the very tentative first steps towards making a third show, which at present seems to be centring around the idea of ‘quiet radicalism’ - the enaction of radical politics through non-showy, everyday actions, in contrast to the larger stage of mainstream and counter-mainstream politics that is magnified by the internet and individual voices on social media.
Neil - First things first, someone has requested a new Kate Bush hooligan chant "Heathcliffe Come Home in a Wuthering ambulance" (we promised to honour all requests).
I've also been formulating a number of smaller pieces for us to do (the main works usually borrow from these and vice versa). We're writing a bit for 'SBAB3' (our next piece) now too - We're in the ideas phase.
Like Gareth says small 'p' politics is on the agenda, so last week I went on a reccy to Middle England to find some: I queued with half the shadow cabinet outside the back of a hotel and small-talked about the criminal seagull raiding bins in front of us. I watched large groups of young civil servants on a beach with ice cream frollicking, pretending to be enjoying themselves. I saw some English Maoists wearing little hats talking about better farming methods. I went to 'Muesli mountain' - stronghold of the Green party. I mistakenly went to a meeting about planning permission. I engaged my neighbour who is Conservative with an apparently small c and was terrified to find out what he really thinks. With all this soft data, I think we have enough material to stand for election or make a work about softcore politics.
Fraisia - Yes, we are going to do a lot of documentation and re-versioning- and hopefully performing more of ‘Sedated By A Brick presents Serrated By A Knife presents Sedated By A Brick’. SBAB 3 is an interesting prospect. We are interested in people and movements perhaps that believe in quite extreme lifestyles or want to change the world in dramatic ways but who don’t shout about it. Perhaps people who don’t want to remain radical but actually want to push their ideas into the mainstream. Perhaps even people who work ‘within the system!’. One of my favourite things about working with SBAB is that we take things very slowly and over a matter of time our research, chatting, drinking and moments of excited realisation will coalesce into a piece.
Sedated By A Brick Present Serrated By A Knife Present Sedated By A Brick is showing at Arnolfini on Saturday 2 November, 7.30pm. Full details can be found here.