Office Hours: Cathy Naden and Sebastián Calderón Bentin on Forced Entertainment
September 14, 2018: Sebastián Calderón Bentin speaks with Cathy Naden about "And on the Thousandth Night," "Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare," and the history of Forced Entertainment

Cathy Naden is a performer and founding member of Forced Entertainment. 

Sebastián Calderón Bentin is an artist-scholar and Assistant Professor in the Department of Drama. His research interests include performance theory, mass media, theories of the baroque and Latin American cultural studies.

Transcript

Sebastián Calderón Bentin: So, I am Sebastian Calderon Bentin and I teach in the Drama Department here at Tisch.

Cathy Naden: And I’m Cathy Naden and I’m a founder member of Forced Entertainment from Sheffield in the UK. 

SB: Well first I want to say, on behalf of all of us, that we’re very happy to have you and the group here and sharing the work. And I was at an event with Tim where he talked a little bit about some of the work in the English Department. This was I think the- the day before On The Thousandth Night and so that was great, so it’s also great to have more time to talk. And I first encountered your work with Quizoola in 2003 and I was doing a semester abroad in RADA and it was at a time where there was this big exhibit at the Tate- I don’t know if it was Adrian Heathfield who was curating it? And I think the piece was in the Tate. Guillermo Gómez-Peña was there as well. And I didn’t even know about Forced Entertainment. I was just so enthralled by this question session and it was only later that I put together the name with that piece. It was years later that I came to know the work of the company and then I had seen also in Chicago some years ago, The Notebook at the NCAA, which I know you were presenting work there as well, and then now The Thousandth Night and then Tabletop Shakespeare, which I saw- Pericles. So, you know, for me, it’s a huge honor to be able to meet you and talk about the work. And I mean, maybe we should pick up on what we were talking about in the hallway, which was about Pericles… and because I mean, for me, it was a play I didn’t know about. And so it was also interesting to get to know a play through its plot structure. So maybe if you can just- we can start with that with the experience of working with that play in particular and as opposed to- I’m sure more like Macbeth, you know, it’s nice that there’s a completeness of all the works in Table Top Shakespeare

CN: Yeah, it’s interesting because I think when- just to sort of talk a bit generally about some of the things you said there- when people come and see the Complete Works, often they’ll come and see the ones they know. They’re sort of drawn to the ones that are familiar. So, we try to persuade them to come and see the ones they don’t know. Maybe come and see a couple, see one you know and then see one you don’t know! So, Pericles is definitely down the end of the plays that people don’t know very well. Because I think when you don’t know the story, you really see the kind of schematics of the plot and you really get the sense of it as a storytelling project because with Complete Works, it’s really true that it’s not about us doing our versions of the Shakespeare play. It’s really about this, sort of, what happens between the performer who’s part storyteller, part like puppeteer arranging the objects around on the table and the sort of this text that each performer has prepared that is, in a way, a response to the plays that they’ve read. So, it’s not about using the Shakespearean language, it’s just about sort of retelling the story. So I think with Pericles, the thing that struck me about it was that it was just this sort of this yarn, as we were saying, you know, this sort of a tale that in a way just goes on and on. It really- it’s not like, say, the Shakespeare comedies, and the ones that people might know very well like, Twelfth Night or A Midsummer Night’s Dream– now there’s a real shape and pattern to those comedies where- because it’s often about mistaken identities, and then you know, the people are revealed to be who they really are and everything, you know, sort of everything is disordered and then it kind of gets put back into an order. But Pericles just sort of rambles on and on and on. And then I think the thing that struck me about it was one- it had this character called Gower in it, who’s like a stage- a chorus, I guess. And there is this sort of interesting thing about Shakespeare which we weren’t really expecting to discover that all those centuries ago that he was making the theatre. There are little correspondences, if you like, between the way that we make theatre now, that this sort of talking directly to the audience and, you know, this sort of deconstruction of the- the fiction, I suppose. So this Gower character is a bit like that- he’s sort of speaking directly to the audience about events. So that was sort of something that I was very interested in and then this sort of like- the endless storms and shipwrecks. Sort of being able to make something of that- that repetition, you know. Repetition is always something that’s kind of interested us in making. And I think because it’s quite- it’s really quite fairy tale like. So, they’re sort of these very stock kind of good characters and evil characters and in terms of casting- then it was sort of- it was just sort of fun to be quite literal about that and to do, you know, sort of all the evil characters as objects that are sort of very dark or black. This sort of sense of it being a dark and sinister sort of place. And then the sort of good characters are kind of white or sort of silver colored objects. The first scene in Pericles is sort of where Pericles has this sort of riddle that he has to solve and if he solves it, he kind of wins the beautiful princess in marriage, and if he fails the challenge, then its death and that. So, there’s sort of just two characters in that scene, but it’s-  it was really nice using all the different objects almost like scenery, so that, you know, just like an umbrella and a little can of sort of car oil. A little plastic black sort of flowerpot. So you know, kind of just playing a game… and it’s about sort of color-coded and different heights of objects… so you’re kind of making a little scene really. So that- that was the kind of guiding principle in Pericles, I think, was to really simplify the plot and play with these repeating features like the shipwreck. And then to sort of make these- because it’s a lot of traveling, and to make the different countries that he’s traveling to. To have these sort of features like, you know, all the characters here are sort of silver objects and all the characters here are sort of white or beige-y colored…

SB: Well the threads also- the king and queen- she’s the yarn?

CN: Oh, she’s like a ball of wool, yeah… 

SB: And he’s a scrub?

CN: A scrubbing brush, yeah! She’s got- she’s like a beige color and he’s like- it’s like white bristles and there’s a beige-y colored plastic, yeah…

SB: I think there’s something, because you’re right, there is this- always this move in Pericles, where they all end up at the Harbor and he’s always leaving and I think if one were to experience the play as a full production, one would get that that’s a scene that is happening, but I think by having this abridgement of the plot, you get that repetition in a much more starker way. So I think the way you were playing with the choreography of that already kind of, you know, we’re listening to a story, but it made it very clear we’re seeing a structure at the same time, you know? And I thought that worked- it was both a plot and a comment on plot itself, you know?

CN: Yeah, exactly, yeah, yeah! And I think that’s sort of, in that sense, we’ve all re-written some of our plays here and there, to do that sort of job to them- to make the structure kind of more apparent, you know? So we’ve taken some liberties ourselves as storytellers because it’s sort of about making it also fit into what we as performers doing it now here in the 21st century can make work for a contemporary audience as well…

SB: That makes sense, in a way that there’s a kind of a particular take on the plot…

CN: Yes! Yeah, yeah. And I think we all have slightly different attitudes to what we’re doing with it, like some people, and I think it depends a lot on the play you’ve got as well, but some people stick more to the poetry and there’s a little bit of paraphrasing… but like in Pericles with the whole harbor scene, I just kind of invented because it’s about sort of playing spatially with the table. Like if you can take me to the edge of the table and it’s like- because it’s a bare stage in a way, and you can make it look like they’ve come to the edge of the country, you know? There’s the sea out there, sort of thing. That’s the sort of game that we play with quite often. If it’s not- characters go to the edge of the table and they’re looking out the window or they’re looking down at something. Or playing with, you know, sort of spatial arrangements, so all the characters are kind of across the table this way and that way, if there’s a sort of dance scene that they kind of be facing each other and then they all go that way, but it’s very simplified, it’s diagrammatics.

SB: Right, exactly. You have that also in the scene where they’re doing a kind of tournament where the knights go by, you know? These choreographic moments. And what I find interesting, I find myself and also with the audience, how quickly, as soon as the story is framed around an object, even though it’s not really functioning at the level of puppetry, in the sense of, you know, they’re almost like placeholders with mobility, but mostly placeholders. At times there would be a gesture, like the servant who looks, but I was surprised how we quickly endow an emotional connection and a kind of sentience, you know? Because then you realize when a character dies there are people going, “Aw…”, you know? And they’re really feeling for this object and so I- so I just wonder about that experience, how you how you feel people start kind of projecting into the object quite quickly?

CN: No, that really does happen and I think when we were sort of first rehearsing it as a kind of concept or as a thing, that was the aspect of it that really struck us- that you could put you know a sort of jar of tomato ketchup in the middle of the table say for Macbeth and say you know, Macbeth is thinking about what he’s just done… and then you just stop talking and let the attention be on the object and you really start to fill in the gaps as an audience. You’re looking at it- what is that? You do really breathe life into these kind of inanimate objects and I think that’s sort of- it’s part of a strand of work that we do that’s really about sort of letting the imagination work in the audience and giving that- the audience space for their imagination to bring its own sort of picture-making ability to what’s happening or yeah or this idea of filling in the gap. So what- you know, you were saying about Pericles going up to the harbor. You know, there’s no set there to suggest that, but the- the audience sort of fills in that picture and I think it’s the same with giving these characters sort of like the- humanizing them, like these empty objects can acquire these very sort of human emotions or even sort of really big dramatic sort of emotions… 

SB: So there’s in a way there, a pause. And I noticed a pause also when, for example, if someone sings a song and I don’t know if it’s- which of the characters, you must know who sings a song… it’s a woman and you say, “Now she sings a song!”  And there’s a pause there. And again, it’s leaving the audience a time to imagine the song, or if you don’t imagine, just to wait for the song to happen, and it’s like, you know, very- there’s an intention there to always give the audience that space for them to enter.

CN: Exactly yeah yeah yeah. And I suppose it’s allowing in that, say with the song, sort of that- it’s playing the time a bit, isn’t it? It’s sort of allowing the elapse of time, so a few moments later… but just for those moments, nothing is happening. It does make the space feel different for an audience… 

SB: Yes, absolutely.

CN: And I think that’s something that we sort of play with a lot- how to use time on stage and make an audience enter time differently, so that like from moment to moment you could suddenly change the way that time is operating…

SB: And Tim had mentioned how, you know, there is a kind of weight on British companies that are well-established. And they would say, you know, “When are you gonna do Shakespeare?” And, you know, your company’s had a body of work for many years, and this is the first piece where you engage with Shakespeare and, you know, it’s such a heavy canon… How has the experience been, now that you’ve toured the piece, and you know, of that part that is recognition in the canon, but also part in the way you’re stretching it, and in a way, also is a bit of a send-up also in the canon as well…?

CN: Yeah, yeah. And I think that’s why we wanted to call it The Complete Works. I think we liked the idea that people would say to us, “Why don’t you do a Shakespeare play?” But you know… why would we do Shakespeare for God’s sake, you know?! But then when we did come to do it, we’ll do the whole lot- all of it! And I think, you know, the way that we’re tackling it is really important. That it is this sort of- because I think the whole project, each of the plays speaks to the bigger project, which is this sort of marathon of all of them- that we’ve divided each play down to a kind of 45 minute, in some cases an hour-long, sort of sentence, if you like, in the big sentence that is the canon of Shakespeare. But the fact that everything is performed by these little objects and that the objects are there on display, so there’s shelves around the table in the middle where each play gets performed. They, you know, there’s like- the objects, as characters, are always looking at the empty stage in the middle, so whenever an audience comes and sees any individual play, they’re always aware that they’re seeing this one, but they could be seeing that one or that one, you know, or that they might have just missed that one and now they’re seeing this one. So it’s about making the parts no more important than the whole, I think. But I think in in terms of taking on Shakespeare there, I think people do come with expectations in a way that they might not with other Forced Entertainment shows. That sort of they might be getting a version of a Shakespeare play, rather than quite grasping the whole concept in the first place. But it’s all of the plays together and each one, each is a unit made up of different, you know, all the different units of the plays. So you know, so then, you’re kind of dealing with all of that baggage that Shakespeare comes with about. Sort of, it’s an interpretation, it’s this, you know, you’re playing a character in a particular way. So its stuff to do with, kind of, their characters and sort of psychological sort of playing of the events. But I think because it- because we make it- we try and make it clear that it’s not the poetry and it’s not a version of Shakespeare. That it’s everyday language with everyday household objects that people realize quite quickly that they’re not coming to see, you know, like the Royal Shakespeare, you know? We’re imitating Royal Shakespeare in doing our Shakespeare that it is quite a different take on that text and it’s really like dealing with it as a text and a job of storytelling I think– 

SB: And for the- because I immediately think also that- when I saw Henry IV, I didn’t notice so much the- almost like “storage closet” that was all of the other plays! And I think it was because where I was seated- and I arrived just shortly before it started, but in the- in your piece, in Pericles, which I had more time to look around, it does almost feel like the- to think of canons or literary canons or dramatic canons as these kind of storage closets and kitchens that one goes to that is not necessarily a place of reverence- it’s not a museum, you know? They’re there and- and it feels they can be almost domestic, in a way? In the way that family stories are passed on or told. So I feel there was something also about the piece that spoke to- to what canons are, and how they can be treated as material, not bashed, but also not ,you know, recanonized, but just as a kind of material that have the structure to them, you know? And as you say, this question with canons of wholeness, and then what does it mean to then partition or rearrange…? 

CN: I suppose its demystifying, but it is sort of decanonizing– 

SB: Right.

CN: –the canon, I suppose. Because I think it is very domesticated, this sense that it’s sort of just storage and that the things on the shelves are really what you would find, you know, in your kitchen cupboard or your bathroom cupboard. And that’s really how we started out making it, you know, we had a sort of table in the rehearsal room, and we put up some shelves, and we just- people would just bring in, you know, sort of stuff from the kitchen cupboards. Like, they’re like little spice jars that they never bothered using and so the sense, also, that objects were old, you know? That they were just- there were, you know, a bit stained and all greasy or dusty from being in the cupboard. But we also, you know, went to the supermarkets and brought up stuff because it was- we liked the look of it or the nice packaging and all that kind of… So we added that to the stuff on the shelves. And people were bringing in sort of little items that had some sort of personal meaning, like so- because at the time when we started making it, I was kind of clearing out my mom’s flat. So I was bringing in- so Antony and Cleopatra they- all of the, all the handmaidens and these little cotton reels. So I was bringing in like all that stuff, so they’re sort of like personal items plus, you know, kind of branded stuff, plus sort of every now and again, you go around the second-hand shops and you’d sort of see, I don’t know, a jug or something? Think, you know, “That’s a perfect Falstaff!” And then bring that in, but it’s- but this sense that nothing is extraordinary, I suppose, they’re just- and it’s seeing them all on- on mass together isn’t it? It’s this sort of celebration of the domestic in a way.

SB: Yes, absolutely. And the idea of the found object as opposed to the designed puppet or designed object because some are, for example, some had brands that the audience- brands are also context specific. So a brand known in England, might not be known here, or- or some are brands that are- have now expired. And so all of the kind of detail of the object also starts coming into contact with whatever character we’re projecting on it at the same time. And making it- when you mentioned that the space given to the audience, you know, after the character says something, give them a time to kind of process or think about the object or the song is… I saw similar operation in And On the Thousandth Night, with these stories that don’t end, and that kind of space. And- because one reaction was, you know, “Why am I not getting the resolution?” But of course, there is the joy that one can create one’s own resolution of the story, and also that another story is about to start. And I wonder, if you could just talk a little bit about the process of how that performance- the concept behind that performance- how it came about?

CN: The sort of storytelling game, which is this basically the- somebody has to start a story and it- it’s “Once upon a time…” It has this kind of fairy tale-like beginning, each one. And then you have to keep going until somebody else says, “Stop!” And then the person that said, “Stop!” then has to start their own story. I think at the time, we were sort of looking for things that were really clearly games like that. And there- that storytelling game was originally part of a 24 hour piece, it was just one sort of returning section. So, we started out making durational pieces probably in the mid-90s, so Quizoola was kind of the first text-based sort of game that first got a very clear game in it. And then we made sort of various other durational pieces. Now I think we just wanted to push at making them last longer, so like okay, if we’ve done 6 hours, why not do 24? Ao we did it at the South Bank in London and we were- there was all sorts of costuming games that we were exploring at that time, so a lot of the show was about very simple little acts and we had lots and lots of animal costumes. They were sort of like the kinds of costumes you get in fancy dress shops, so like- like a pantomime cow or a pantomime horse or a sort of teddy bear or a mouse or a lion, these kinds of things… So there was a long game about just putting on the animal costume and then sort of being- we had a little stage, on top of the big stage, and sort of these creatures would stand on the stage, and somebody would write “Alive!” on the blackboard. And then the creature would die, and then they’d rub out- the person on the blackboard would rub out “Alive!” and write “Dead!” Then the creature would sort of come back to life and then they’d write “Alive!” again… So these very simple sort of games come acts, come magic acts, was a big interest of ours at that time. I suppose it’s- if when the kind of theater we make is not a sort of narrative theater, then we have to look for other kinds of excuses for being on stage and quite- quite often we’ve mined the territory of sort of stand-up or magic acts and quite often really crap magic acts. These things that are very sort of basic and have been hopeless. So this 24 hour piece was full of stuff like that, but every now and again, there were maybe, even the first time we did it about 18 performers on stage. There was the Forced Entertainment Company plus guest performers. So at certain points over the 24 hour periods- we probably did it about eight times over the whole 24 hour period. We would form these lines with chairs and do this storytelling game exactly like it was in the kings. But we quite often had different costumes on. So sometimes we were dressed as these animals, but without the animal heads on. And the whole red cloaks and cardboard crowns was one of the costumes that we were playing with in that show. And I think we got asked to do a festival in Beirut 2001 and we just thought that storytelling game is a sort of a piece in its own right. So we kind of picked the king and queen costumes and then we just played around with that storytelling game, seeing how far we could kind of push it… and that’s really something we do quite a lot is sort of recycle ideas. So you might you might make a show that’s sort of a bit- a bit messy and chaotic, but is quite rich and that you can sort of pull things out of it for years afterwards and say, “Ah, that’s a show and that’s a show…” It doesn’t occur to you at the time, but you come, you know, you revisit them, and you can sort of pull material out, make something kind of quite- it’s related, but it’s also quite new. And a new thing in its own right. So yeah, we wanted to, in a way, push at the game, I think when we first started doing the kings, it was perhaps less, that we were less interested in the content of the stories and much more interested in the game of it. So we kind of we went down to 8 people. So we usually, it’s us usually plus 2 other people. It was 7 when we did it here, but yeah, originally we sort of- I think it was about really playing with those dynamics between performers on stage, and different energies, and playing with the energies of what you like when you start and you’re quite fresh and what you like after four hours where it’s sort of the- the effort of having to keep it up is really making people tired and things get very slow and then they also start to get very silly and people get a bit hysterical. So this gives really nice energy and also that all of the acting goes out of it, as well. You stop thinking about, you know, that you’re on the stage and you stop trying to sort of censor your own material or all your own sort of behavior onstage in a way. So that- that does very interesting things. So a lot of the dynamics we were playing with were sort of like, “What happens when you have everybody in the line, all playing, all competing?” So you have the stops coming in very quickly, so you might have, “Once upon a time, there was a king, stop- Once upon a time there was a queen, stop- Once upon a time there were three kings, stop- Once upon a time there were two queens-” and then you get this very, sort of, competitive very high turnover of sort of beginnings of stories being carved up. But it creates this very sort of choppy energy out of which something quite different can suddenly emerge because it, you know, sort of as you’re doing these games you sort of- you start to write the rules for them. So to say, after, you know, five minutes of very choppy stuff, somebody has to then come in with a bit of content, you know, so that goes back to this idea of structure again. How you structure this kind of work. So again, if you’ve got a line of all people in play, that’s a different thing to suddenly going down to two, and you know, if you’ve got two people sitting next to each other in a line they, you know, what they do might be quite supportive and in agreement. Or maybe if one is at one end and one’s at the other, perhaps they’re really competing with each other. Perhaps they are sort of building, you know, a more sensitive story that’s sort of traveling the sense of distance between them- they’re trying to connect over that distance. So it’s those sorts of dynamics that do with the kind of architecture of time and the bodies in space and how many people are in play. And so all of that’s happening without having to think so much about the content of what the stories actually are. And we’ve now performed that show many times and it’s interesting because it starts to tip in the other direction. So these days, we’re more interested in the content of the stories, unless, I don’t suppose it was because we’ve got older… We can’t be as sort of like- we’re not as energetic with it anymore or ,you know, I think when you do shows for quite a long time, you’re looking back at the younger versions of yourselves doing them and what really made sense at that time sort of stops making sense… or that sort- you start getting interested in something else. So, we were talking a lot, the last few times we’ve done it, about actually sort of how the stories have got a kind of- quite often, coming out of, I suppose, a white, middle class, left-wing perspective, you know? We’re sort of jokey about that. But what does it mean to sort of push content, the stories that have come from really somewhere other…? So we’ve been talking about that quite a lot. But people always have like a little collection of stories that they can draw on as well, so some of those stories have been around for a very long time. So people have a kind of pool of stories that don’t always make it into the shows each time. Because I think- because the other thing is that you can be left on your own, so you know, nobody can stop you. So this is the sense of you let somebody- you leave somebody out to dry. What happens to them and how do they start to invent? So people, I think prepare stories for- for those moments in case you get left alone, so you’ve got something to say! But these, you know, these are very interesting moments where- because something real is happening and that’s again is something that we’re always looking for- when something can be very sort of silly and playful, but then it sort of becomes real because the situation has changed for the performer, and then they’re dealing with the more sort of difficult relationship to the audience or something… because now they’ve got to perhaps deliver, you know the pressures on! So the audience is watching somebody, you know, struggle and they kind of feel for them in that struggle, you know… how are they gonna come up with something? Or are they just gonna be speaking nonsense… 

SB: And they’re left physically alone as well. So it’s a temporal and also spatial kind of condition that they’re left in. We were talking in class also about how, you know, at how it felt, at times, almost like a jazz group, you know? And storytelling became a way to kind of improvise or provide a kind of counterpoint to each other and improvise with storytelling, but in a way that had this- that the music was, obviously the content is there, but the music was more on the structure of interruption and variations on theme… like at times, I noticed we would go into, kind of, Shakespeare fairytale narratives and then we- it would move into domestic love stories and then into horror and then into science fiction and astronauts and then back to a fairy tale, but there were some, you know, themes that would emerge and that, you know, someone would subvert it- but- but still there was a kind of group moves, and just- I think I imagined, by virtue of sharing the space and the way you improvise, you’re picking up energies just at the same time as you’re trying to do your own thing…

CN: Yeah, absolutely. Even when we- very original versions of it, you know the kind of, the sort of basic rules that we set up was that everything would start with, “Once upon a time…” So this is when it was part of the 24 hour piece- because we sort of liked the idea that you could give- it would have- it very clearly says it’s a story. And it gives it, you know, that- it’s as if it’s a fairytale. But you know, it could be anything, so you could work with real stories in a sort of fairy tales or Shakespeare’s or plots from novels or plots from films or you could, you know, turn a news story into a story! So, you know, some kind of- the story about the football team that was trapped in the cave? Did you heard that one? It was- was big news… 

SB: Right! In… was it…? Oh yes! In Thailand– 

CN: In Thailand… so that came up at one point, but you can, you know, turn something that’s quite a sort of an unpleasant situation into a fairy tale by giving it this kind of “Once upon a time…”

SB: This kind of “pastiche” moves– 

CN: So yeah, it could be historical events, things, you know… sort of current events, whatever! But it, you know, you turn it into this story by starting with “Once upon a time…” and the only sort of rule was that you could never say real names or place names because that sort of collapsed the game somewhat because ,you know, there is a sort of pleasure in, at some point, the story becoming recognizable. So, on Saturday, there were quite a few Sci-Fi things they went through.  Some several film plots in there- astronaut films. So there’s a kind of pleasure, I think, for the people playing… like, “Can my colleagues guess which story I’m doing?” But also for the audience… But, so that, you know, that’s one sort of thing that you get from not saying any names. But also I think if you stopped listening in the same way- if it’s like you know, “Once upon a time… there was an awful president called Donald Trump…” It’s the fact that you have to be more sort of inventive about the thing it is that you’re sort of trying to describe. In that, it becomes a kind of task of language in a way… so there’s something else going on in that and it’s not just simply telling stories. There’s some kind of work that the brain has to do because of that restriction… 

SB: That’s interesting because what you’re saying is a kind of restraint- the restraint allows a kind of copiousness of the story– 

CN: Exactly, yeah! And we talked a lot about building stacks, you know, so there is a kind of agreement on a theme. So, now all the stories are about, sort of, couples who are in love… and you keep building that stack until the stack gets so high it kind of topples over, you know? So these are just what we call, sort of, performance strategies… 

SB: And the order of those themes is predetermined? Or not necessarily…? 

CN: No, I mean, I think it’s- it ,you know, it’s a sort of certain amount of knowingness because we have performed it so much. So we sort of- because yeah, as a group of eight people doing the job of the storytelling, you have to kind of listen to what’s going on, so you get a sense of where something’s going very quickly. You know, sort of, “All right, okay… so we’re now going to do, sort of, film plots about, you know, sort of, heist movies or about robbers so…” And then I think your analogy about music is really true because it is really like how musicians improvise and it’s sort of like you’re just feeling around for the notes and then suddenly it comes, you know, and something emerges and you’re all singing from the same song sheet or playing the same tune at that moment. Then somebody goes off and takes in a different direction. So, it’s really creating live, in front of the audience’s own sort of dramaturgy, its own structures, and I think, you know, what makes it very watchable for an audience is you never quite know when the next little, you know, number comes from… you know, you’re watching people try and find something. And that- you’re sort of almost outside of time when that’s happening, bringing that sort of relationship to the performance… you know, sort of, “It’s not quite working, is it? What’s gonna happen next?” And then suddenly it takes off, you know, and then that mind- that part of your brain that’s kind of monitoring it stops, you know? You’re just in the moment with the performers, enjoying the invention. There was a lot of riffing on Saturday night that, you know, the kind of wordplay a lot of punning… 

SB: Yes! With “fairly”, “successful”, “small”, “mid-sized”, “dentist office”-

CN: I think that’s also- it’s kind of word association, and sometimes- it’s sometimes it’s really- it can be really sharp and smart. Sometimes it’s just- it’s almost like you can’t stop yourself from saying the most stupid thing because you’re kind of- the association is so obvious, but you’re just saying something kind of stupid, really…

SB: But that’s interesting, also, what you mentioned earlier, that you know- you say well at the end these stories are coming from a kind of middle class or white or an English background and it’s interesting because in a way, because the piece opens things up for this group of performers to dive into their imaginary archives and pull things out- it does become a kind of ethnography of whoever is on stage. Whatever, you know, your own cultural- your own socialization, your own history will be coming up in those in those tales and those stories and so it’s interesting to think of it also as a kind of ethnography of imagination that tells us also something about this group of people, you know? I can imagine a different cast, you know, from a different country would, you know, but with the same constraints. So that’s quite- there’s a kind of sociological imagination even within that…

CN: And it just reminded me- there, I mean, what one of the things we used to say about it was that it should- when it was part of the 24 hour show- was it should have this sense of this- it was keeping a vigil. Like, you know, sort of- because it comes from originally the Arabian Nights– that Thousand Nights tales where Shahrazad tells tales to keep herself alive and they never sort of finished- one tale becomes another. So this sense that you’re sort of keeping vigil- it’s the long night that you’re kind of seeing through and that stories could have a slightly sort of scary or dangerous element to them as well. But after we did it in- at this festival in Beirut- and it was at the time and they were sort of having local elections and it was quite an unstable time and– 

SB: And when you did it in that production was it six hours or twelve…?

CN: Sixi 

SB: It was six…

CN: Yeah. I think that we’ve only ever done for six… I don’t think we’ve done it longer than six… but somebody had come to see it and then I think they got arrested, sort of, sometime after the performance. And they ended up teaching the game to the people that they were held in the cell with, so- so this thing about it being a marker of ethnography… I would’ve loved to have seen the stories that they came out with. And when I teach do workshops, occasionally I sort of get students to play that game and it’s a very different thing because of course they’re coming out with their stories…

SB: Exactly, exactly… And in that way, it becomes more of creating a situation rather than a kind of- narrating a plot in this sense. I was- I was also thinking that the show has this almost like a wonderful example of allegory, where it basically, you know, a metaphor in narrative, because at times, you could see that you the performers were speaking to each other through the story. It was not about the content, I mean the content of the stories was merely a kind of a use of allegory to really say, “Please shut up!” or you know, “Can we change the story?” or you know, like when he said, “There was once was a king who banned the words ‘fairly’ and…” you know? So it was this amazing way to see also allegory work in a quite literal way, you know, between the performers…

CN: Yeah it’s kind of- it’s a way of sort of getting at your fellow performers onstage as well, like, yeah it’s like saying, “Shut up!” but you have to do it through– 

SB: …and with the audience kind of in there watching– 

CN: Yes, yeah. They’re sort of witnessing the kind of like one person perhaps being told- it’s like transgressive, isn’t it” One person is being told off by the others, “You’re being too silly now or lighten up!”

SB: I thought that was really beautiful and I guess one thing, maybe to finish up, is how is this particular performance here what- you’ve already mentioned some things that came up, but yeah, how did you- how did you feel, I know I saw some of the people in the audience with pajamas, I know some people stay to the end, people came and went- how was the experience for you?

CN: It was really good. It felt like they were really up for it, in the sense that sort of, I think maybe- because it started at midnight. Because normally it would be like 6:00 in the evening till midnight, so we would finish at midnight rather than starting at midnight, so there’s a sense that people come knowing that it- they’re gonna it’s going to be a bit of a night. It has a sense of event about it. So yes people might bring their pajamas. in case they want to kind of have a little nap or something. So that’s really- that was a really nice sort of aspect is- I think at the beginning where, you know, the auditorium seemed to be kind of flooded with all the people coming in… and then you know gradually there’s a, you know, sort of people do leave. So you get the kind of diehard audience left at the end, but it’s also quite difficult to tell whether the people have just, you know,  disappeared behind the scenes to go for a sleep and just not sort of woken up again or… 

SB: Like an airport terminal… 

CN: Yeah! Or whether they’ve gone home… And they were really up for it and in the sense that they were laughing a lot in it- so I think there’s a sense when you get this kind of an audience, it feels very present in that way, that you want to really sort of entertain them, I guess. So that can influence a little bit- the direct structures and the content goes in. Sometimes you’re sort of looking for- sort of play things down the funny end for the lot. So it felt kind of quite light and playful, which actually felt really nice. When we first did it at the South Bank in London, as part of this 24 hour piece, people were kind of leaving because they were tired and wanted to go home. But we heard stories about people who would sort of get on the bus and then sort of nearly get home and decide that they had to go back because the performance was still going on and they didn’t want to miss it really, so then they would come back to the theatre. So I think it’s that event-ness about it that’s really pleasurable… Yes, I think that sense that it was happening between midnight and 6:00 in the morning that everyone- you really feel like everyone is in the same room and that the kind of line between us and the people watching on Saturday night gets more and more blurry cause people- we all become in the same state, we’re all sort of equally tired and people watching are investing their time and energy in it for a long period of time–

SB: Yeah I remember leaving for maybe 20 minutes and then coming back and I thought, “Oh I’ll leave for maybe an hour, take a nap, and come back!” But as soon as I got home, I realized, “I know… but I’m missing it!” And then I told myself, “Well, there’s nothing to miss. The stories are just being interrupted!” But for some reason, it still created this sense of “I’m missing even the interruptions…” Almost as if there is an arc, even for yourself as a spectator. And the piece has this weird pull or even though you know, you know, nothing will be resolved. You still feel when you leave that even if you leave to come back, that you’re missing something important, you know? And I thought that was an interesting reaction in relation to the dramaturgy of the piece that it creates that effect of, you know, of drawing you in to the to the game to the situation…

CN: Yeah, yeah. Well it’s sort of creating this sense of resolution or importance where it doesn’t- where there is none, isn’t it? Out sort of nothing- out of these endless interruptions. There is this sort of creation of- that something is really happening at the same time. And it, you know, it might be that, you hope, that perhaps a story goes on much longer, that you’ve almost- you get some- I think it’s the same when we- when we do it. That somebody might one day just tell the best story ever… which has never happened. But there’s also that- so it’s sort of failing in its own game all the time. It’s at the limits of what our imaginations can achieve, isn’t it? And I think it plays also with this- is it better to be telling stories collectively? Can we get somewhere more interesting by throwing in multiple- multiple perspectives on something? Or you know, when it comes down to maybe one person- can one person, sort of, deliver something more meaningful? The answer to either of those is, “No, not- not really…” But somehow, it’s setting up this pull that you’re talking about- this pull towards something that could be. It’s what I suppose it’s towards potential or possibilities– 

SB: Yes and it also- I think the other thing that it- that one starts missing is that- and some of my students mentioned this, you know, inside jokes start to develop with the audience, and so you know that if you leave, you might be missing later references to things that happened, and that creates a kind of melancholy of knowing, you know, you won’t be able to get that, you know?

CN: Yeah, it’s a little bit akin to that sort of, you know, “I saw that band when they were small. I was part of the in-crowd, but now…” I think it’s yeah there’s a kind of camaraderie that’s built up with the audience. The people who come in later are like “What are they laughing at?” You know, they’re not sort of part of that in-crowd. It’s just a clever strategy to make sure people stay there longer– 

SB: And to amuse each other also– 

CN: Yeah, yeah! You know, when we play these game-like structures always sort of in it is this, “What are the extremes to which you can push the game?” And those sort of- or the edges of the game, we talked about. And I think that can exist in lots of different ways, you know. Sometimes what might be the worst story you could tell or the funniest story- those sorts of extremes. But also I think it’s about, you know, how inclusive or not inclusive can you be? How much is for the audience? How much is for the people on stage? And it’s like, by taking away stuff from the audience like, sort of, excluding them, then to sort of be very inclusive again, really makes that something, you know? So yeah, it’s just all the time, sort of testing I think what this relationship is between the stage and the audience, you know, and that we kind of test things out on each other that then the audience are sort of watching and witnessing, so sometimes they’re witnessing us be a bit mean to each other, a bit brutal with each other…

SB: Well I want to thank you so much for giving this time to talk with us and also for coming and sharing your work. Thank you very much– 

CN: It’s been a pleasure! It’s been great to be here, thank you! 

SB: Thank you!