When I started making my current show And by the Way the Cat is Dead, I had been thinking for a long time about the experience of mourning in the contemporary Western world. I had read Jennifer Hockey’s Experiences of Death: an Anthropological Account (1990) during my PhD because I was interested in how a UK audience might experience a performance of a traditional lamentation without having a cultural relationship with the lamentation form. This was for a chapter where I discussed the impact of the spectacle of skill on theatre experiences.
It is a long while ago now, but I looked at Song of the Goat Theatre’s Chronicles: A Lamentation (2004) and considered how our potential relationship with the lamentation itself might be overwhelmed by our engagement with virtuosity of the performers, given the ubiquity of the spectacle of skill in contemporary media at the time. However, I also considered how we build institutional structures around experiences of death and the kinds of mourning rituals that are (or are not) available to us and this research stayed with me and continued to resonate.
Much later, with a little more distance, I began thinking, how can I perform an act of mourning or explore mourning through performance in this context? And this performance is the result of that.
In a sense, I have built a ritual, in the form of the performance. I repeat stories, words, songs, gestures and create some space for reflection with the intention of being near loss. I go through the process of laying out fragments of text in a space, preparing and then taking responsibility once more for the text and actions in the work. At the same time, the work is built around the idea of the impossibility of creating a ritual and an oscillation between heightened and everyday presence. It is a theatre (ish) performance where the offering to the audience is defined more by demonstrating different attempts or approaches to voicing something, than by claiming to perform an authentic act of voicing grief.
Having presented And by the Way the Cat is Dead several times in 2017, I am having a small break from it, while I work on another project, but I will return to it because there is a sense of responsibility that goes with the act of exchanging stories with an audience. So I feel I want to do it again. Though not too often. A performance about mourning is intense even where you do not directly carry your feelings of loss into the voice or persona you perform. It leaves traces.
A little more on traces and responsibilities
Each time I perform the piece, when I write the last fragment of my story, I offer people a postcard to write or draw something relating to their own experiences of loss. If they wish they can leave it with me to travel with the performance for future audiences to read. A lot of audience members have offered deeply personal words or stories and in each performance these are laid out in the space from the beginning. At the end, spectators can spend time looking at these and then they can either add their own postcard or if they prefer, take it away with them.
For me now, there is a sense of responsibility to that process of sharing. Each person who left a story with me has given a gift to people they will never meet, people who might live on the other side of the world. Each repetition of the work bears witness to those stories as well as my own so that has become important to me in how I go forward. This sense of responsibility is also connected to how that process of sharing is set up in the work. The vulnerability of sharing something personal even anonymously is not something all spectators will welcome and there is an ethical responsibility in both how the invitation to write something is built into the work and how these very personal offerings from the audience are then treated. The spectator needs to feel that they are invited into an action which is easy to refuse and where the decision whether to participate is not exposing in itself. Getting this right has been something I have really worked hard on.
Dramaturgy: thoughts and promises
So, now, after working and re-working this piece, did I find an answer to my initial question, how can I perform an act of mourning? Of course not. Perhaps the real question was closer to: how can the realisation that we can never find an adequate voice for mourning help us process grief? And I think I do have something to say on that subject.
Perhaps we cannot express grief except through the multiplication or repetition of shared attempts, and inevitably failures, to do so. Perhaps that is mourning. And that idea is at the heart of the dramaturgy of this work: it is a work about the collective attempts and repeated failures to express the inexpressible. Because if we keep saying the words regardless, something slips out in the spaces between them.
On a dramaturgical level, attempting to stage our relationship to our own fragility is at the centre of this work, so the performance persona or voice is really important. The distancing from the messiness of grief provided by a well defined persona, is what allows an audience to feel welcome in what might otherwise be a difficult space.
Bracha Ettinger (one of my favourites) talks about ‘compassionate hospitality’ (2005: 707) in her article Co-Poeisis, and what I am interested in here is how we might facilitate this hospitality to the traces of grief, trauma or loss in performance. How can I offer a performance about grief and mourning that leaves space for yours too? This issue of how a stage persona can create a hospitable space and experience for a spectator is in part where my practice-based research has been focused in this past two years and I have a lot more to say.
So I promise I will say more soon in some kind of article shaped manifestation. So there we are. A promise. In writing. More to follow.