An actor friend called Matthew Scurfield was a member of the repertory theatre company in Barrow-in-Furness. At one point in the play, which was a period piece, he was required to march on stage, stand before an expectant throng of actors and deliver a mighty and important speech. Matthew strode to his final position, stood with his back to the audience and gathered his cape around him. He then drew himself up majestically and extended his arms wide, holding on to the wings of the cape. He was bollock naked. Thus disarrayed he delivered the entire speech. The actors could not possibly be seen to react. He could have killed somebody.
In 1982, towards the end of a performance of ‘Circus Lumiere’, Lumiere & Son’s most popular show, the five male performers, at the behest of Pamela the Ringmistress, enter the ring in their underpants in order to reenact their days as wild men in the jungles of Brazil. The uncouthness that they displayed before their discovery by Pamela, who had civilised them then launched them as circus performers, was made evident in the way they fought incessantly among themselves. This flashback sequence was punctuated by snap blackouts, during which the performers would assume fresh tableaux comprising complicated interlocking stacks of grappling bodies. For the effect to work properly, the audience must not see the performers changing position and the performers must move at top speed in the dark in order to be discovered ‘magically’ reassembled when the lights snap back on. On one occasion I hastened to my next position – a manoeuvre that had been rehearsed many times – and sensed that I was a tiny bit late. I dived into the pile of bodies just as the lights came up. I found that I was sitting on George Yiasoumi’s face. There then ensued a bout of uncontrollable behaviour that will be the subject of this post.
Similar behaviour can be easily located in such arcana as any Jim Carrey Blooper compilation on YouTube. His ‘Liar Liar’ bloopers will be found instructive in this respect. In the footage Carrey is seen pursuing two slightly different paths. Characteristically working at a maniacally elevated pitch he displays an impatience to achieve the results that the overall film project is designed to deliver. Some of the bloopers are simple errors based on bumping into the scenery or getting the lines wrong and they precipitate fits of giggling in all the actors present in the scene.
In these situations Carrey is rarely content simply to fail. He picks up on his initial mistake and runs it through a few more gears before giving up in order that a fresh take may be taken. He will land on a rather small error, which could easily be ignored, and instantly extend it, as if the end result of the extension represented the real nature of the original mistake. His fellow actors usually crack up and, as a result, perhaps Carrey gets a preview of the effectiveness of his comic persona. If this is the case then what the other actors and crew give the star is not an endorsement of the work in progress but an acknowledgment of the tension generated by that work. The cracking up demonstrates that the actors are tense and are pleased to experience relief from that tension. That they are tense simply indicates that they are professionals – they wish to optimise the presentation of their skills come what may and their attention is monopolised by acts of concentration, memorisation, collaboration and, importantly, surrender to the qualities of the character they are portraying. Carrey is also often seen – at least in the blooper reels – to subvert/ undermine/increase tension (possibly constructively) and show off as he deliberately strays off script to deliver gags and pull faces that make him and most of his colleagues snort explosively or bray with delight. It’s debatable who is the more tense and therefore has a greater need for the release, Carrey or those working with him.
Carrey, in other words, enjoys corpsing and making others corpse. The term derives, it is thought, from the mischievous practice of trying to make a corpse, to be precise an actor playing a corpse, laugh when they should not even be seen to breathe. The risk here would be that corpsing is very contagious and may well reduce the least hardy of the company to helpless giggles as well. From the corpse’s point of view, then, the ideal position in which to play dead would be one in which you are facing upstage, away from the audience.
Corpsing is odd. It is a forbidden delight, with which audiences eagerly connive. Up to a point. Beyond that point it suddenly looks too easy. The corpsing actors start to feel uncomfortable, despite their being enwrapped and entrapped in the greatest of comforts. The audience suddenly senses that, as far as they are concerned, a few seconds of abandon is quite sufficient. They’d like to get back to the script now please. But why did they succumb in the first place? You pay a lot of money to go to the theatre, why would you be so delighted by the abrupt and thoroughly disenchanting collapse of the whole point of the evening out? Or, why would you appreciate the inclusion of blooper outtakes on your box sets? Why do TV shows based solely on collections of bloopers draw dependably respectable figures? It has been observed elsewhere in this publication that actors demonstrate to non-actors that it is possible to act. This disclosure can be taken as an endorsement of the practice of pretending – when the occasion seems to demand it – to be other than you are. It can also support the more offensive notion that all behaviour is performance.
Whether this makes actual actors seem more or less skilled is open to question. It is, nevertheless, salutary to witness actors at work, especially since most of the time we are sufficiently seduced by the performance willingly to sideline the obtrusive sense that it is a performance. In other words, performances can be credible. And this is good to know. The other side of the coin would feature uneasiness about the whole performance enterprise. If theatre or film performance and everyday performance are comparable in some way then non-actors could be prey to breaks in continuity on a par with those suffered by thespians. Professional corpsing is clearly a breakdown of some sort and may be seen as having its equivalent in everyday social life. Some non-actors can act, in everyday life, better than other non-actors but both parties will experience occasions when they turn in a bad performance. For many this will not be an issue. It happens – move on. However, both professionals and non-actors carry within them the possibility of the flawed and therefore detectable and therefore non-credible performance. While non-actors do not corpse – their performance errors tend not to occur in front of large, attentive and formally arranged audiences or highly focused groups of fellow actors and technical crews – they will regard corpsing as significant rather than trivial. Having suggested above that it is reassuring to know that the act of everyday acting may produce credible (if not authentic) behaviour, the more sweeping suggestion – that all behaviour is performance – may precipitate considerable anxiety.
Death stalks these proceedings. Comedians ‘die’ on stage, Monty Python built a sketch around the ‘the Killer Joke’ which was killingly funny and some of us ‘almost die laughing’. If the experience isn’t actually terminal we may nevertheless find it ‘sidesplitting’ or ‘cry with laughter’ or ‘piss ourselves’. The latter actually happens, of course, but people rarely die laughing, despite their assertions that they did.
The laughter business is fraught with danger. Almost by definition laughter is out of control and intense laughter threatens to lead us to a point from which we might have difficulty returning. I’m not suggesting that this is what anyone thinks when they burst out laughing but our colloquialisms do suggest that laughter is not simply restricted to things that we find humorous. I wrote recently about delirious, frightened or horrified laughter in the post ‘Murder in the Dark’. Given that we’re not going to die laughing there still remains within the corpse and the snort more than wholesome, disruptive fun.
The processes that comprise an actor’s preparation do not explain satisfactorily what it is that actors actually do. Somehow they create space within themselves for characters other than their own – that’s pretty clear. One wonders what happens to the actor’s own character when they submit to one that has been constructed in the rehearsal process. In the case of demonic possession the subject is held to be eclipsed or erased by the immigrant evil spirit. The rehearsal process demedievalises this setup, transforming a spectacular event into a series of measured operations.
Romantic misconceptions about method acting not only serve to assure audiences of the authenticity of performances but encourage the idea that the actor dies nightly and is resurrected within the terms of the script. It’s easy to form the impression that accomplished actors move beyond impersonation to almost complete submission to character.
If submission were complete then the actor wouldn’t exist, she would walk offstage, get a National Insurance number and look for something to do with her life. If submission were complete then the actor – like the stereotypical schizophrenic who thinks he’s Napoleon and is disappointed at the lack of respect he receives – would not be able to follow the script, so diverted would he be by the myriad possibilities of interaction with those around him whom he would assume are real people. Notwithstanding the purportedly awe inspiring capacity of some film actors to maintain character between takes, the idea that they forget who they are and only remember the character is silly. They need who they are because so much of what they do on stage or before the camera is technical. They need to stand in prescribed places most of the time and they need to know when the other person’s speech ends so that they don’t interrupt them when they respond. Etc. So this whole submission thing is just not a useful idea. They just submit a bit. Some more than others.
Even so, we are used to thinking that the better they are, the more they have submitted. Perhaps the notion of absorption is more versatile – it could describe a state in which both technical and character requirements are simultaneously maintained in focus. This makes the job sound more difficult yet it does suggest a multi-tasking the components of which are at odds with each other and could not confidently be described as complementary. And this in turn is consistent with a precariousness in which the actor’s condition is vulnerable to breaking down, splitting apart and being defined by neither of its disengaged parts. Suddenly, just because the on-stage drawing room doorknob comes off in your hand, you are between worlds and discombobulated, a zombie with a body but no character.
But they recover. In rehearsal they recover every few minutes. When the director says “Can we stop there for a moment?” the actors jump off the bus, hang around in the bus station with the director then just jump straight back on the bus when everyone is ready. The building of character is an act of composition and the actor is required to hold the character in a state of composure but this can be relinquished when it is appropriate to do so. However, when it is knocked off balance without warning then decomposition can follow, rather than the straightforward on and off the bus that is typical of rehearsal. The world of the actor in a scripted play is both thoroughly stable and teetering at the point of imbalance.
In his remarkable book ‘Boo! Culture, Experience and the Startle Reflex’, Ronald C. Simons presents a detailed study of the latah phenomenon. In Malaysia and Indonesia there are individuals who react to a sudden noise far more violently than others. Simons explains that ‘Latahs do everything that hyperstartling people do elsewhere. They may strike out at objects or others, assume overlearned defensive postures, or say improper or idiosyncratically stereotyped things…The disruption of ongoing attentional processes is for them more extreme. After a series of startles, a latah‘s speech and behaviour may become quite disorganised. In addition, after being startled some latahs experience strong attention-capture, focusing on salient aspects of their perceptual fields and narrowing and locking attention on them. Latahs may call out the names of what they see or repeat or approximate sounds they have just heard. They may match movements of objects or other persons with movements of their own bodies. As with persons whose attention has been captured generally, latahs will sometimes obey imperiously given commands.’
Latahs or their non-Malaysian and Indonesian equivalents are found in many societies. They may not have the special status afforded them in these regions but the precariousness of their composure is much the same. They will ‘jump out of their skin’ and not be able to get back where they belong for minutes at a time. During this time their capacity to direct their own behaviour is spectacularly diminished to the point where they will be compulsively obedient or repetitive. They are, in a sense, ‘anybody’s’. While corpsing actors cannot be described in these florid terms, there is a similarity in the abruptness of the shift from composure to disarray in both latah and corpsing actor. Actors may be, in the particular sense I have suggested, fragile, but only when they are acting. In the case of the latah it is as if their entire being, or their sense of being, will only cohere if they are never startled.
The video clip demonstrates that the non-latah peers of the latah individual tend to tease the latah, sometimes mercilessly, in order to precipitate what is clearly regarded as an hilarious performance, available on demand and unticketed.
A post that deals with some concerns evident in ‘Dash Dash Dash’, a series of shows I wrote and directed in 2010
There is, of course, nothing funnier than a man covered in shit. It’s hilarious. What’s even more hilarious is when the man is first not covered in shit (because nobody wants to be covered in shit) then, because of a failure, he is suddenly covered in it. If he were to walk in covered in it that would be quite funny but not as side-splitting as when he comes in, with all his innocence, his arrogance, his complacency, his sheer deserving of something bad, his cleanliness, the fact that his things are in the right place and then he falls into a hole full of shit or, equally, a load of shit falls on him from out of nowhere. This is real humour.
Most of the people I know say that one of the toughest tasks they ever faced in a long life was learning to control their bodily functions. Before the Law was introduced, life was endlessly forgiving. In fact, the very concept of ‘forgiving’ was inapt. What was to forgive? You could do what you wanted, where you wanted. For a while, this looked likely to be the general setup. Then a reward system was introduced and you knew something was up because before that they didn’t need to reward you because everything was so dandy in the first place.
The purity & danger economy (see here and here (p. 150 et seq)) prevailed, however, and it was only natural that there arose a great nostalgia for the golden days of incontinence. This was a fraught state of affairs insofar as attempts to invoke such a return risked a possibly terminal social exclusion.
The clowns of the Zuni and the Yaqui and other Native American tribes had devised antidotes to such pomp that were a corrective to lifetimes of muscle control. The practice of ‘filth-eating’ by the clowns drew startled responses from the 1930s anthropologists who ‘discovered’ them: “These masked men teased one another…they simulated eating and drinking the excreta they would pretend to catch from their wooden machete from the body of passing burro or horse or man or woman, even of one kneeling in prayer.” (The Sacred Clowns of the Pueblo and Mayo-Yaqui Indians. Elsie Clews Parsons & Ralph L. Beals. American Anthropologist, Vol 36, No. 4. 1934.)
Another commentator finds that the practices were not merely pantomime: “The scatalogical practices among some of the clown societies of the Pueblo Indians, particularly the Zuni, are notorious examples of this clownish capacity for pointing to and containing the total human condition. One is initiated into the Zuni Ne’wekwe by a ritual of filth-eating – a strange sort of Eucharist indeed. Mud and excrement are smeared on the body for the clown performance, and parts of the performance may consist of sporting with excreta, smearing and daubing it, or drinking urine and pouring it on one another. Among the Hopi, a group of males known as ‘singers’ play about with vulva-shaped sticks during initiation ceremonies, singing taunting and obscene songs to the women and running after them to ‘bless them’ with filth. The women, in turn, being well-prepared, douse the singers with foul water or urine.” (The Spirituality of Comedy: Comic Heroism in a Tragic World. M. Conrad Hyers. 2008)
The clown, with his pants falling down, recycles in the name of pure symmetry: “Ne’wekwe knowledge not only cures stomach aches but also enables clowns to eat any kind, or amount, of food or garbage, including human excrement, and to engage in outrageous human behaviour without feeling shame.” (The Beautiful and the Dangerous: Encounters with the Zuni Indians. Barbara Tedlock. 1992)
The business of running a tight outfit is onerous. The pants, and the hair, must be let down from time to time. Even under the patched and fraying canvas of the British travelling circus those big-shoed figures at whom the public (quite understandably) rarely laughs any more will enact great rituals of incontinence that reach the parts that the ironic quip cannot reach. In dashes Bonkers closely followed by Skanky and Roderigo. They are carrying ladders, planks, brushes and pots of paint. They are going to decorate something. Up go the ladders, between them go the planks. Skanky goes aloft with the pot and oh no…! Five minutes later they’re covered! What a mess! A veritable shit-storm!
The indispensable voidances passed from the circus as it waned and the variety halls and pantomimes as they gave way to black and white TV where, on Saturday night in the 50s with your Mum and Dad on either side, the diminutive redhead slapstick artiste Charlie Drake (catchphrase: Hello My Darlings! (you had to be there)) would take up employment in a pie, chocolate or, indeed, paint factory and, with complete inevitability, over the course of four or five minutes, move with polished incompetence to a condition of fully glazed muckiness. I wept with glee and, had I not sensed at some obscure level that the viewings were precisely designed to tone rather than relax the muscular clenching without which one cannot step forth into polite society, I would have wet myself.
In the sixth Dash show, ‘Gush’, is the funniest thing you ever saw. A man comes into a room and torrents of blood fall on him from above. Later on a woman takes the lid off a tin up on a high shelf and is covered in blue paint. Then a man is being kicked and beaten fiercely and yellow paint falls down on him. Then a woman tries to stop a man attacking her with a bottle and black paint falls on them both.
Well worth doing, I promise you. Murder to rig, though. The liquids, two litres at a time, were delivered from buckets suspended way up in the grid, where the lights hang. Each bucket was tipped by cords pulled from backstage. If the actors were more than an inch out of position the liquids dropped right beside or behind them without marking them in the least. Such was the volume of screaming, howling, banging and infernal 170 bpm Dutch gabber that the backstage crew couldn’t hear their cues and, until reliable systems were eventually devised, the actors had to shout key words repeatedly (‘Yellow!’ was one such cry) in order to get coloured in.
Fittingly, after having become a site for the unabashed display of fluid wastes, three of the figures on stage are garrotted by a psychopath. They let themselves go – what did they expect?
In 1983 Lumiere & Son Theatre Company was comissioned to make a short film for the flagship Channel 4 arts magazine programme Alter Image run by the television production company After Image. The film was written by David Gale, directed by Hilary Westlake (for Lumiere & Son) and Jane Thorburn (for After Image). The producer was Mark Lucas.
The cast was as follows:
Alison Conway ……. Tamsin Heatley
Paul Darke ………….. Trevor Stewart
Ben Jameson ………. David Gale
Brian Roper ………… Neale Goodrum
The handsome front credit on the video ties it to the website of performance company imitating the dog, whose artistic directors Pete Brooks, Simon Wainwright and Andrew Quick have been producing exceptional and consistently innovative work for twenty years. Recently the company has added a magazine section to the site, titled ‘NewAdventures in Performance’. It kicked off with an archival Lumiere & Son short film, prefaced by this generous endorsement:
Lumiere and Son were one of the most significant companies to emerge from the British Independent Theatre scene in the early 70s. Led by Hilary Westlake and David Gale, the work was surreal, ironic, intellectual and very funny. They were unusual at that time in placing as much emphasis on the quality of the writing as on the visual, and we will be looking at this company in depth in a later issue. This made for TV short, more or less typifies the sense of ironic, elegant and articulate threat that characterised their stage work.
Lumiere & Son Theatre Company was founded in 1973 by Hilary Westlake and David Gale. It was based in London. Westlake directed the shows and Gale, with some exceptions, wrote them. Their work derived from protracted conversation about their mutual preoccupations, followed by focus on a theme or topic which Gale would develop into a performance text.
The company presented itself, in the terminology of the time, as an experimental theatre group and, with support from the (then) Arts Council of Great Britain, toured widely in the United Kingdom, with frequent visits to Europe, Singapore and Australia. The work defied ready categorisation because the form and setting of the productions changed from show to show but invariably the work combined text, image, movement and music and took place not only in theatres and studio theatres but a great variety of indoor and outdoor spaces. The work was at times intimate and on other occasions produced on a large scale with casts of a few hundred deployed across parks, estates, castle grounds and swimming pools.
The visual identity of the company was evident in all its publicity material: graphic designer Storm Thorgerson of Hipgnosis produced stylish and dramatic posters for the shows and Paul Derrick designed programmes and brochures.
Lumiere & Son was renowned for its dark humour, innovative scenography and the distinctive psychology brought to bear on contemporary issues. The company aspired to work that was ‘Pure theatre, horridly funny and deeply alarming.’ (BBC4: Kaleidoscope. 1981) also ‘Popular, political and avant-garde, all at the same time.’ (Michael Billington, The Guardian. 1983)
Theatre: Themes & Styles Prior to the founding of the company Westlake had been an actor/performer with the London La Mama Company and Interaction’s TOC and Gale, who trained as a film-maker, had been working as a performer with the London-based Phantom Captain group. Their first event, in 1973, was performed in the foyer and auditorium of the Rainbow Theatre, London for the progressive rock group Henry Cow. The tastes of the partnership were apparent in the deployment in the theatre aisles of performers in ill fitting suits and summer dresses carrying wooden platters bearing severed sheep’s heads.
The show attracted the interest of the Rotterdam Science Fiction Festival and Westlake and Gale were commissioned to produce a suitably generic piece to be played in and around the De Lantaren Theatre. This project, titled Tip Top Condition (1973), consolidated the use of hyper-extended and choreographically repetitive behaviour derived from the personal mannerisms of the performers and established a grotesque humour and physicality that would become signature elements of the company’s output for some time.
A strong interest in the language of dreams informed Jack…the Flames! (1973), a fragmented , nightmarish piece in which Gale, in an attempt to avoid the dialogue structures of naturalistic theatre, wrote only single lines or page long speeches for the figures on stage – an enduring characteristic of his writing throughout the company’s life. Westlake’s choreographic concerns were further developed in the integration of mannered unison movement with stylised text.
Westlake and Gale found an ideal vehicle for their preoccupation with psychic disinhibition in the folklore of the Trickster figure, a study of which informed the riotous vulgarity of the eponymous play (1974) featuring the comic performance of the late Eiji Kusuhara as well as an array of characters portraying well known and, in many cultures, normally concealed, body parts.
Themes of alienated directness (Pest Cure & Molester , 1975), sexual plague (White Men Dancing, 1975) and multiple personality disorder (The Sleeping Quarters of Sophia, 1975) marked a move towards an examination of psychological issues that hardened into the more politically incisive concerns evidenced in Special Forces (1976), a paramilitary ballet staged in a bare rectangular enclosure surrounded by its audience, and The Disaster Show (1976) in which a saloon car was ritually attacked and destroyed in the town squares of certain Dutch cities.
In late 1976 Westlake and Gale produced a show that fully expressed their thematic and stylistic concerns, establishing a bench mark for the synthesis of chilling psychopathy, verbal and physical humour and a kind of poetic baldness that would be found in their theatre performances for the next few years. Gale had wanted to dispense with the behavioural clutter of the conventionally rounded psychological character and attempt dialogue that would instantly reveal the desires of protagonists rather than suggest them in an indirect or subtextual manner. Similarly, Westlake conceived a stage movement composed of poised tableaux that would isolate speakers and then free them to regroup, interspersed with passages of unsettling slapstick violence heightened by the use of melancholic classical music. The play, Dogs (1976), featured a working relationship between figures based on the Marquis de Sade and his wife and the Moors Murderers – a team bent on the terminal manipulation of an immigrant couple.
Lumiere & Son’s most renowned show was Circus Lumiere (1980), an animal-free circus-like entertainment housed in a 360 seater custom-built five pole tent. The show featured a number of acts, each derived in some way from aspects of traditional circus but departing into darker and more adult territories.
Winding up a UK tour that included the Edinburgh Festival, Circus Lumiere played at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London where an audience member, recruited to act as a plant in an elaborate conjuring trick, inadvertently stabbed performer Andy Wilson in the spleen, which was removed later that evening at the nearby Charing Cross Hospital. The show continued with a replacement performer and Wilson recovered well.
After the 1981 play Slips, a show about childhood and memory, Westlake and Gale joined forces with the composer Frank Millward and produced a full-length opera, Senseless (1983), in which a psychopathic spy murders some tourists he mistakes for enemy agents.
Site Specific and Large Scale Throughout its twenty year duration Lumiere & Son consistently made work designed for non-theatrical spaces. Early shows of this sort tended to feature the infiltration by performers of public areas in which performance was not expected. Outdoor performance skills were refined in a series of displays and events in, for example, colleges, supper clubs, a rugby club, a ferry boat and the Exhibition Hall at Olympia, London.
In the late 70s the company began to develop residential relationships with drama schools such as East 15 Acting School (1978), arts centres in Birmingham (1979), Cardiff (1979) and other cities, also community theatres such as the Albany Theatre in Deptford, London (1980), mixing professional actors with local non-professionals thereby extending cast sizes and prefiguring the large cast work that would steadily come to dominate Lumiere & Son’s output.
Out of these developments emerged a series of shows in which Westlake elaborated the inter-relationship of movement, text, song and music, producing dense, closely plotted pieces that combined elements of a number of performance forms. The 1978 show Icing examined, in this multidisciplinary mode, the discovery of a wild boy by four women while The Dancers (1978), Glazed (1979) and Giants (1979), all involving a mixture of actors and non-professionals, were ensemble pieces which gave prominence to, respectively, extreme exaggeration of emotion applied to a melange of fairytale plot elements, the perplexity of a stranger in a strange land and the travails of a dumb man in the company of befrocked men and women of towering stature.
In 1983 Gale decided to devote time to writing a novel (A Diet of Holes, Deutsch 1988). During this time he continued to write texts for shows conceptualised by Westlake. Following the larger cast shows of the late 70s were four markedly more complex pieces of music theatre of varying scales. Vulture Culture (1984) played the Henley Festival with a cast of fifty and featured a beached turtle beset by lowlifes; Brightside (1985), a story of optimism, was played by five actor/singers and a dancer. It won a Perrier Pick of the Fringe Award from the Edinburgh Festival. Deadwood (1985), a large scale perambulatory site specific show about the destruction of the rain forest, was perhaps the most acclaimed of the outdoor works. It played in the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew in London with a cast of 100 and was recreated in the Mandai Zoo for the Singapore Arts Festival as The Fragile Forest. Westlake won a Time Out Theatre Award for her “audacious and imaginative” production. War Dance (1989) was commissioned by the Nottingham Festival and set in the grounds of Nottingham Castle. Set on the eve of World War I its cast comprised actors, musicians and singers, in addition to squads of students and a horse.
Last Shows The penultimate show produced under the Lumiere & Son umbrella and the first Gale had conceived and written since the libretto for Senseless was Why is Here There Everywhere Now? (1991) in which Strindberg’s Miss Julie, Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, and Chekhov’s The Seagull were edited down to 15 minutes each and played consecutively without breaks. Actors playing fathers or mothers etc would play comparable roles in each successive segment. The action then moved to a compressed episode from Pirandello ‘s Six Characters in Search of an Author, in which not only do dispossessed characters roam the stage but break out of the text completely and join the audience, with members of which they fall passionately in love. Refusing to resume their theatrical duties they are bullied into so doing by the appearance on stage of the director Hilary Westlake and the writer David Gale.
The company’s last show was Abduction (1992), in which three town dwellers are visited by enigmatic strangers.
In 1992 the Arts Council withdrew its financial support, compelling the company to cease trading. Westlake and Gale continue to make work together from time to time. This has included a large-scale large-cast outdoor show called ‘Dining with Alice’, commissioned in 1999 by the Salisbury Festival and by the Norfolk & Norwich Festival in 2011. The show places its patrons in a large country house estate where they eat a meal whilst encountering characters from Alice in Wonderland. It was directed by Hilary Westlake, with text by Strength Weekly’s CEO, writer David Gale, music by Frank Millward and produced by Artichoke (the company that brought ‘The Sultan’s Elephant’ to London).
Westlake and Gale also continue to work with other Lumiere & Son artists and regulars – performer Trevor Stuart, designers Katy McPhee and Simon Corder, composer Frank Millward and technical production manager Steve Wald.
In late 1973 Hilary Westlake and I were commissioned to supply in-foyer diversions for a Henry Cow concert at London’s Rainbow Theatre, then a major rock venue. A few days later we used elements from the foyer in a show called ‘Tip Top Condition’ – Lumiere & Son’s first theatrical production – at the Rotterdam Science Fiction Festival in ’74. I wrote about its genesis in our Tenth Anniversary brochure, produced in 1983: “The directors were excited by the success of their first project (the Rainbow event) and decided to seek funds to pay the wages of a small company of actors. A luminary of the rock and roll world who had schooled with David Gale was approached (actually, he went to a nearby school – Ed.), and after a frank and uncomplicated discussion £1,500 was generously donated to the cause of experimental theatre with no strings attached. We also applied to the Arts Council Drama Panel and were surprised to be promptly awarded £750 (in those days you could take a woman out for a fine dinner, hail a cab to the railway station and weigh yourselves and still have change from a pound – Ed.)
Whilst discussing the implications of our good fortune a few days later, we received a phone call from Rotterdam. The director of the De Lantaren Theatre was organising a Science Fiction Festival and had heard about our barely formed theatre company from a Time Out theatre writer (John Ashford CBE, later to be Director of The Place Theatre 1986-2009 – Ed.) Were we doing anything concerned with Science Fiction or Space at the moment? Within seconds an important lie was told and a verbal contract for a week’s work in eight days time had been agreed. The directors now had the rest of the afternoon to cast actors for Lumiere & Son’s first European tour. By supper time the best of the actors from the Rainbow had been persuaded to sell their services for £15 a week gross. (see ‘fine dinner’ reference above – Ed.)
After supper the directors found stark terror to be a most effective lubricant of the imagination and devised a quantity of exercises for a workshop to be held the next day in the lounge of David Gale’s house. Over the next three days Hilary Westlake encouraged the group to evolve a selection of stylised body movements based on the deliberate exaggeration of the members’ own most visible mannerisms. Our intention was to present ourselves as a group of aliens who were anxious to pass themselves off as Earth-people by imitating Earthly behaviour. The audience would perceive that the aliens were getting their imitations badly wrong, which would provoke mirth within a Science Fiction context.”
Disingenuous as it may seem publicly to profess an interest in one’s own artistic development, I have to interrupt this 24 year old account of a 34 year old show (at the time of revising this page (2019) the account is now 36 years old and the show itself is 45 years old – Ed.) in order to note the writer’s (my) enduring preoccupation with social transactions as performance rather than unprepared reciprocation. Not a novel stance, to be sure, but one that kicked off in the 70s as an expression of personal experience and has gradually, it seems to me, come to serve as an analysis applicable to a broad section of contemporary social life. The steady osmosis of theatrical values into that life has absorbed me greatly. The comic impersonations of ‘TipTop Condition’, in that respect, are not so very far from the complications of identity evident in my show, ‘Vanity Play’ (2007).
But that’s enough about me – let’s see what you think of my show business memoir…
“Our Dutch host had asked us to perform vignette-like events in various corners of his theatre building, so we prepared a vocabulary of activities from which we would select items appropriate to each futuristic cranny. During rehearsal a number of decisions were made on costume. We wished to avoid what we felt were the banalities of fictional space-wear, and therefore designed costumes based on found and altered second-hand clothing that was clearly contemporary yet had an eccentric and awkward quality that did not stray into the dubious area of the ‘wacky’.”
The ‘look’ of early Lumiere & Son shows was strongly influenced by the presence among its actors of a recent graduate from Leeds Art College called Rose English. Rose was six feet tall and had a highly distinctive dress sense supported by her regular and forensic inspections of jumble sales and junk shops (or ‘charity shops’ as they are now known). Her personal style was reflected in the drawings, designs, found objects and garments she produced for the company and for the first few years our costumes, props and programmes all bore her elegant and thoroughly idiosyncratic mark. Our interest in a ‘contemporary timeless’ visual quality was not merely complemented but considerably extended by Rose’s unique take on performance. In later years Rose English, of course, went on (and continues) to produce a remarkable succession of increasingly large scale works, some of which featured horses, dogs and children.
“We were surprised on arriving in the foyer of De Lantaren to see Lumiere & Son billed to perform their play at 8.30pm the following evening. We had no play in our possession at that time, and a ripple of panic lightly disguised as weak giggling ran through the band of international travellers grouped around the notice board. After supper Hilary took all the separate components of our ‘event’ and joined them together into a ‘play’. The next morning this play was rehearsed for a few hours and was found to be 40 minutes long. Surely this was unpardonably short? Our Dutch host passed through the auditorium, nodding approvingly at our dedication and apologised for failing to mention earlier that our show could not be longer than 40 minutes. We thanked him and said this was perfectly in order.
That evening the play ‘Tip Top Condition’ opened to the space connoisseurs of Rotterdam and was warmly received. Our host was delighted because we were one of the few groups whose work had a genuine Sci Fi theme – it seemed that a number of less scrupulous organisations had merely brought along their current show and recostumed it in silver lurex tights!” (You know who you are, Natural Theatre of Bath– Ed.) A major physical element of the hastily composed show was a large white and orange silk parachute, equipped with shoulder straps and worn as a long, billowing dress by Hilary.
When the hem of the parachute was grasped around its perimeter by the cast of six we discovered that it could be raised above our heads and brought firmly down to the floor as we ducked under. The silk would fill with air, creating a giant striped hemisphere beneath which we placed lights that made the costume glow, revealing our own shadows beneath it. Hilary’s hair was bound around a foot-long stick to make a vertical tuft, her face was whitened and her arms were decorated with giraffe markings, a make-up technique patented within the company and featuring the application of Sellotape in five sided shapes to the bare skin of the performer
It took about twenty minutes to giraffe the naked body of an alien visitor: after the tape had been applied, dark brown make-up was sponged on. When it had dried, the tape was peeled off, to the accompaniment of shouting. The performers then donned their costumes over their new mottling and, when on stage, sweated profusely in an intensely physical show. Somehow the make-up stayed intact. The climax of the performance found the aliens creeping out from beneath the mother chute, having cast off their earthling outifts, their giraffing apparent to all.
‘Tip Top Condition’ further consolidated areas of style and content that we felt were central to an emerging notion of what ‘our theatre’ was about. The use of disciplined exaggeration, the development of a ‘Lumiere & Son look’, and an atmospheric use of lighting were further additions to a repertoire of devices which we were becoming confident of using well.
Back in London we savoured our continental success and resolved to make further offers to our actors in order that we might start putting together our first full-length play. The verbal content of ‘Tip Top’ had totalled some eight lines and the directors felt that the next production should expand in the writing department and also involve a fuller use of set and properties than our hand-luggage oriented sci-fi entertainment.”
‘Tip Top Condition’ was one of the few shows that Lumiere & Son kept in repertoire. Its structure was modular: the aliens demonstrate their grasp of greeting, eating, washing, sex, fighting and other basics, interspersed with long periods of ‘line work’ in which they rock to and fro and from side to side in line abreast unison, impelled by piercing shrieks and cries from the parachuted giantess. It was possible to train up new performers in a day and have them out front shortly thereafter. I loved performing in the show – its prerequisites of a maniacal fixed grin, much hair cream and eruptive clowning more or less reflected the palette of my own ‘acting’ skills and kept me extremely fit. Modesty does not quite prevent me from disclosing that I believe I was the first in the cast to perfect the ‘accidentally placing the shoed foot in the plastic bowl of soapy water then affecting to fall over backwards thereby propelling the water into the front rows of the audience’ gag.
Excerpted from a 1983 L&S brochure, first blogged 2007, updated 2019
‘Dandyism’, for these purposes, is the quality of being ‘Dandy’ rather than being ‘a Dandy’. In 1999 I wrote and directed a play called ‘I Am Dandy’. The title referred to a state of feeling ‘just fine’. The play took three years to write, ninety per cent of which involved making notes. I love the play. In 1994 I got a job. For the previous thirty years I had been either a free-lance or the co-director of my own theatre company. These do not count as jobs because the work was not alienating. The job I got was as a Senior Lecturer at a provincial university. Of the many shocks I experienced in my first employment, the most profound involved the discovery that there were people ‘above’ me who could tell me what to do. I hadn’t experienced this to any significant degree since leaving my family home at the age of 18. I was now an employee with a number of employers. I was expected to want only the best for the institution that employed me.
Since I didn’t really care very much for the institution, a degree of pretence was called for. Many readers will find these observations rather commonplace. I can only further observe that, largely as a consequence of a twenty year spell of writing and, initially, performing with Lumiere & Son Theatre Company, I had become sequestered from the experience of workaday subjugation.
Anyway, for five years I went into shock and didn’t write a thing. One day an affable colleague in charge of ‘research’ asked me how my research was going. I had no idea what he was talking about. I saw myself as an ex-theatre writer and, most recently, journalist. I didn’t do research, that was something my father, a biochemist, did. I told my colleague this, I insisted I was a journalist. His face fell. You have to do research at universities or else your department doesn’t get enough money the following year. As a result, a great deal of research material of no great use or importance is generated. Rather like the Dutch government, which used to buy artists’ work off them to give them a living then put it in storage, universities maintain libraries in which a lot of nicely bound research outcomes sit, unbothered by human contact.
I told my colleague that I had just done a programme for BBC Radio 4, in which I had interviewed a number of writers and commentators about their view of the future. ‘That’s national exposure!’ he cried. ‘Is there a book in it?’ What do you mean? ‘You could publish the interviews in a book, couldn’t you?’ Not one that people would wish to read, I thought. Yes, I said.
So began the promotion of a piece of radio journalism into a fund-worthy venture that eventually, thanks to the system-savvy persistence of my colleague, generated a sum of money large enough to mount a play. I had tagged the notion of writing a play onto my application, recognising that I had just been offered a way back into doing what I do best. The book fell by the wayside, politely declined by publishers who knew that few would wish to read it.
Despite my feeling that employment was synonymous with the end of art, I had been making notes for a show that I imagined I would put on one day, whenever circumstance delivered me from the day job. I wanted to present a succession of non-narrative scenes that examined aspects of contemporary hysteria. Blessed with a profound atheism for as long as I can remember, I found myself increasingly fascinated, as the Millennium approached, by the persistence of irrational beliefs in an age that boasted of its technologised victory over nature and superstition. I was bored with reading about UFO abductees and accounts of the interesting past lives of the currently dull, however, and more concerned with the extent to which everyday transactions were suffused with a vagueness that was justified as a form of spirituality.
In the programme for the show, which opened at the Festival of British Visual Theatre on the South Bank in October 1999, I laid out some of the ideas that I wanted the play to articulate.