Play with nothing @ Brixton Arts Coop

In 2005 (or some time around then) I went to a drama workshop at the Brixton Arts Coop. I think it was £2 to get in, I didn’t know anyone there and it was the first time I’d stood up to perform since drama lessons at school. There were maybe six of us in the workshop and the first exercise we were given was to go off in pairs for 40 minutes and then “to come back with a story”. At this point I slid into some kind of mystical wormhole, where I found myself inhabiting the persona of a boldly experimental performance artist.

My performance partner: “He said we have to come back in 40 minutes and tell a story.”
Me: “No, he said we have to come back with a story.”
Partner: “Oh, what? We could do a story without words? Just actions?”
Me: “Or maybe without actions either?”

I don’t remember. It went something like that.

What was the least we could come back with? Even us just spending 40 minutes together — that was a story. If we just went on stage and said nothing and did nothing, we’d still be coming back with a story: the “we just hung out for 40 minutes and didn’t prepare anything” story. That’s still a story.

Each moment we spent together the story was being written. Even the process of asking the question — “What’s the least we can come back with?” — every time we made a suggestion and dismissed it we were getting further and further away from doing the least we could do. Maybe we shouldn’t talk to each other. Maybe we should hide from each other for 40 minutes.

My partner suggested we try playing around with the Meisner technique.

“In this exercise, two actors sit across from each other and respond to each other through a repeated phrase. The phrase is about each other’s behavior, and reflects what is going on between them in the moment, such as “You look unhappy with me right now.” The way this phrase is said as it is repeated changes in meaning, tone and intensity to correspond with the behavior that each actor produces towards the other. Through this device, the actor stops thinking of what to say and do, and responds more freely and spontaneously, both physically and vocally.“ — Wikipedia

She explained it and I think I said: “What if we did that, but without saying a phrase?”

And as the last word of my question left my mouth it was clear that the exercise had begun and we looked at each other and she half-smiled and I half-smiled back and then she stopped half-smiling and I stopped half-smiling and her right eyebrow twitched and sank a few millimetres and almost without me being involved in the process my eyebrow mirrored hers and I felt my heart opening and my eyes softening and the world around us had completely disappeared and I was completely 100% in love with her and there was no distance between us and then the love passed and I felt a kind of emptiness of being alone and then a kind of peaceful –

She reached out, touched my knee and the room reappeared and we were sitting there across from each other back in the real world. And the host of the workshop was a few feet away staring at us open-mouthed — What the hell was that? What were you guys doing? You have to repeat that for the others when you come back to perform. I have to go hire a video camera and get you to do that again and film it.

He went back to see how the other groups were getting on, as our 40 minutes of preparation were nearly over. We talked about what we should do when it came to our turn. We could repeat our Meisner technique invisible repetition act, but that still felt like too much of a plan. And, we wanted to come back with the least we could. The Meisner thing meant staring into one another’s eyes for five minutes — that makes it a story about two people staring at each other for five minutes. Surely we can come up with less than that?

How about we go on stage and try to do nothing?
And if we accidentally find ourselves doing anything — like staring in each other’s eyes — we’ll just always keep returning to doing nothing. 

We were on first. We’d planned to take a couple of chairs onto stage with us to sit on while we were doing nothing. But in the moment when I looked down at the chair in front of me, just as I was going to pick it up and put it in position, I could feel that it had already started and that if I picked up the chair and put it into position then this would be a story about someone picking up a chair. And that’s not nothing.

I’m looking down at the chair. Standing. Head tilted forward. Eyes down. Do nothing. I notice my breath is heavy and fast. I can feel the energy of the audience’s attention. I think about attention being like tension. About the attention of a crowd seamlessly transforming into nervous tension. About the audience looking at the top of my bowed head. I feel my breathing is heavy and fast and I think to myself that breathing heavy and fast is a thing and I should return to doing nothing so I stop breathing. I pause my breathing and feel the tension dissolve. The heavy in and out of my lungs in panic turns into slow, barely perceptible, normal breathing.

In the quiet space left behind I notice — even though my breathing is normal my heart is pounding out of my chest. Hard and fast. Adrenalin. Return to doing nothing. I focus on my heartbeat and feel it gradually return to a normal, unremarkable, background pace.

I’m breathing normally. My heart rate is normal. The audience attention / tension has gone. I realise I’m standing with my head bowed looking at a chair and that I’ve been standing like that for a couple of minutes. And standing head bowed looking at a chair is a thing. I feel the tension in the back of my neck. I relax. And my head lifts and I turn and see for the first time the scene that I am in.

I am standing. My partner is sitting a few feet away across the stage. She is looking up at my face. All the time I was stood there, head bowed, she was looking. And, in the moment where I lift my head and turn, I meet her eyes.

There’s a ferocious connection. A crackle of energy. The initial drama of breathing and heartbeat and the attention of the audience has passed. Now there’s just this. The drama of a man and a woman looking at each other.

A man and a woman looking at each other is a thing. 
The tension between a man and a woman looking at each other is a thing.

Return to nothing.

I look at her. She looks at me. It feels as if we are caught for a moment. I feel like I’ve just emerged from a battle to find her waiting for me. There is a connection.

But connection is a thing. 
A moment passes and it’s gone.

There’s no drama left. We break eye contact and turn to the audience and they see that it’s over.

They might have applauded. It might have just been silent. I don’t remember.

In turn, each member of the audience tells us what they saw. And each person saw something completely different. Back stories are imagined. Relationship dynamics deduced. One person says that at a certain point I disappeared. That it was as if I’d become a ghost. That they had ceased to be able to relate to me as a person.

The other groups played their stories. They were normal. People driving cars. People fighting. I was in a daze.

The workshop host took email addresses and said he’d borrow a film camera and get us to replay the scene. But nothing came of it.