Reflections on ‘Beneath the Surface’ (Part 1)

Posted on February 12, 2013 by The Quest

In the first part of an ongoing Conflab, The Quest co-founder Darren Brady and Storytelling Coordinator Paul Woodward discuss their journey as Storytelling Facilitator and Dramaturg (respectively) for the recent performance piece ‘Beneath The Surface’.

The show was first premiered last year at the Sarah Siddons Theatre as part of our Gay Utopia weekend, and recently re-worked and performed to great acclaim at The Embassy Theatre at The Royal Central School of Speech & Drama.

 
Paul: I thought we could kick this off with our responses to a quote I read recently: The secret of a moving story is to tell it from a place of complete authenticity Annette Simmons.
Darren: Yes absolutely! But in reality that’s easier said than done! As gay men we learn very quickly (from the ages of 4 upward) to start hiding a key part of our true (authentic) selves, so showing ourselves does not come naturally to us.

Paul: And I think its interesting that the very nature of theatre itself presides on a kind of inauthenticity – in the traditional sense, the actors and the audience are collaborating in a lie – pretending neither is there in the same space at the same time. There’s always been speculation about why gay men in particular are drawn to the theatre arts. I wonder if its something to do with two forces prone to hiding reality, or a masking of truths based on some fundamental in-authenticities. Gay men and theatre – the mix in some ways was always going to be explosive, for our performers and audience both.
Darren: Which is what makes our performances so interesting. The guys telling their stories are being themselves and sharing their own stories and the audience is witnessing this. It is more accurate to use a different language to describe this. The audience are witnesses and the performance is a sharing. It happens in the moment- just like life and that is unique, powerful and very hard to predict! In some ways it is a little like what happens in the self development workshops we do- where a group witness each other sharing very intimate and influencing details of their life.

Paul: And that’s where this whole idea of performance storytelling with The Quest came from of course – I remember when I participated in the Weekend workshop how I learnt more through LISTENING than through TALKING – which for me is quite some feat! – I can remember thinking how it was each time a participant told their story, embracing the vulnerability of the moment, and despite sometimes feeling great fear, went ahead and told their story anyways – and BOOM – the power of the sharing, and the listening and the appreciation, and the feeling of community that arose was just beautiful – I can remember thinking ‘wow, i wish all theatre could be as powerful as this’.
Darren BradyDarren: Yes it is powerful and moving to just see someone who is prepared to show themselves wholly. It is also counter intuitive for the person doing it. All of our mind and body tells us to hide/ protect/ armor ourselves from this kind of exposure, as we fear it will be the undoing of our self. So when someone steps into that space it is the scariest thing a human being can do. It is also the most liberating. When we ‘come out’ we have a moment of this liberation, a moment where we stop listening to the fear and say ‘this is who I am’. For many of us we then think the process is over, that we have done it forever. But really the process of ‘showing up’ is a minute-by-minute business. The performance is a magnified ‘showing up ‘ moment that then needs to continue on a minute-by-minute basis for the rest of our lives.

Paul: I was also struck by how, although of course being based on a series of VERBAL disclosures, how PHYSICAL the moment was too – I could see in the speakers body how real this moment was – how pertinent the memory – true authenticity was revealed through the body and into our bodies – we FELT the moment – how would you say we have managed to retain this type of sensation in the show Darren?
Darren: How do we retain the ‘sensation’ in the show? Well it is something that happens naturally, it’s not rehearsed. When we are exposed and vulnerable the body automatically responds. I think my job in the process ( not rehearsal) is to enable the guys to feel safe. If they feel safe they can allow themselves to share and when they share their bodies show up however they need to.

Paul: And of course it lays down the gauntlet for the audience to follow suit… there’s an implicit challenge there isn’t there… I like that about the work… its what I hope audiences can take away from it, like homework… how authentic can you be right now, tonight, when you wake up in the morning, during the day… what masks might you be wearing… and how do you suffer laboring underneath them in your daily grind…trying to breathe.
Darren: And it is something that is unlikely to happen without some kind of structure, discipline or pressure. Human beings do not naturally volunteer themselves for this kind of behavior. Maybe because of a crisis or maybe because of nurturing and encouragement will people start stepping into this way of being but I think it is unlikely to happen just as consequence of going to see a performance.

Paul: Yes, its a skill really isn’t it – to step into vulnerability and feel powerful in that – to stand at the precipice of chance and potential change – knowing that once you take that step things are going to change – hopefully for the better.
Darren: I think what we do with The Quest is to create the environment where this can take place over a sustained period of time. It requires practice and nurture and courage.

Paul WoodwardPaul: I’ve been thinking about vulnerability lately and what it means, I like that it has the word ABILITY at its route – and that vulner has its roots in the Latin for wound. So in some ways you could read it as meaning wound-ability – or the skill and courage to stand still and expose your wounds for all to see.. and of course there’s two things that can happen at that point… either it gets infected…or receiving clean air it moves towards healing…And, for me, that’s what the work of The Quest does: it enables me to stand in the power and opportunity of my own vulnerability – and to feel all the emotions that arise because of it, and not deny them or my scars or wounds if you like, from growing up gay in a heterosexual world – rather than repressing these parts of me or splitting from them, I learn how to embrace them and be kind to them and in doing so really learn to nurture myself.
Darren: Yes and when we see others doing it we feel the urge to join in! So there is a cumulative effect. Over time and with the right circumstances we can create a new ‘norm’ where our humanness is not something we have to hide. That is what I am beginning to see at the events we create- gay men naturally starting from that position. It’s the default position that gets re-set. So last night we had The Quest social and there was a whole group of guys who have done the workshop and it was very clear to me that their starting position was different from some of the newcomers who were also attending.

Paul: Talking of which, I wonder what strategies YOU have noticed in yourself for keeping authentic as possible during the process as the shows facilitator?
Darren: Keeping myself authentic- good question! I share. That’s very important. I bring all of my emotional self to the process and share what is happening for me. That models vulnerability.

Paul: Yeah for me it was actually our relationship, between you as facilitator and me as dramaturg that kept me grounded and real throughout…
Darren: Bless you for that.. but how do you mean?

Paul: In my devised work for the theatre I’m often encouraging performers to disclose their autobiographies material through the form of the piece and only sometimes do they do this as direct address storytelling… I think I kept these moments of disclosure to a minimum out of a sense of responsibility to them… and maybe even to the audience as well… and in that sense I maybe shortchanged the potential of experience in terms of authenticity in favor of some more pronounced theatricality… I’d throw in a dynamic movement sequence, or a dramatic tableaux or even some expressionist imagery using lights and sound… but with a trained facilitator there like you I felt safe to encourage the performers to maybe take some more risks… and just strip the whole thing back down to basics… the drama was in the material itself, not the effects…
Darren: So what changed for you then in this piece?

Paul: Working with a life coach making theatre was a real rollercoaster ride… making theatre can be a very frustrating process… and extremely psychodynamic… but what i was assured by was that we, all of us, managed to create a safe space to go mad in… to experience joys and frustrations together throughout the process… (which is something I wrote about previously in an article called tenderness, taboo & togetherness)  I knew that it was going to have an impact on an audience because even when you and I became used to the material it still had the power to move, and inspire and even terrify. And I’m glad that in the working processes there were never any real power lines of divisions drawn between the performers and us … That’s very rare…. We were all in it together
Darren: Well love, I’ve got to dash, sorry to cut this right in the middle of a juicy bit but we can continue this conversation in the next Conflab”.

To be continued……..

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