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Being Patient With What We Don't Understand

Stages of Resistance
Andy Smith in a checkered shirt and glasses holds out his left hand and speaks, addressing an unseen audience.

This piece is part of a blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called "Stages of Resistance." The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more articles and reflections in this series throughout March and April 2017!

I am sitting a table in a café in Glasgow. Also around the table are Stephen, Rita, Claire, Paula, and Ian. We are meeting today in order to discuss ideas for the execution, performance, and delivery of my latest play, Summit. A play that has been conceived and written with the idea that three people will perform and tell its story using an integrated blend of languages.

We are communicating with each other today using speech (English) and sign (British Sign Language). For this reason, the document we are working from – the papers on the table that are the last or ‘rehearsal’ draft – has had to be ready earlier than usually needed. There is still over a month before rehearsals begin. I’m enjoying the sense of preparation. I am feeling robust today. I have a feeling that with the support of the people here I am capable of dealing with the rigorous questioning that is taking place.

The process of discussing this translation through interpretation – from sign to speech and speech to sign – is necessarily measured and slow. It’s mostly exciting and interesting, sometimes exhausting, and at times joyfully confusing. It asks us all to consider our thoughts around what we say and how we say it, to sometimes slow down and repeat our responses and ideas a little, and deliberate on matters with care and attention. I think it makes requests of me, the writer, to be more economical and precise, and sometimes direct with my language, something I am not sure I am always good at. It asks me to really interrogate what I think I (as well as the play) could be saying.

I feel liberated by this situation. For me, there is freedom in the fact there is more than one language. Even though I have written the work and (with Claire) will co-direct it, I won’t ever be able to fool myself (or others) into thinking my opinions on it are definitive. I won’t have to pretend I comprehend everything about its existence fully. I will be able to say – and feel able to say – that actually, I don’t know. Though the script is ostensibly mine (it has my name on it) it feels like we are all here, sharing the ideas.

What I do know – or think I know – is the play is concerned with and wants to explore some ideas of our difference and our diversity, and how we might, together, find a common purpose. Today, in Glasgow, it feels like we have this (it hasn’t always). The dialogue moves. Each of us asks questions and offers potential and often open answers. My role is to clarify things about intention and emotion, but I don’t know if I can always do that.

The task for now is to help Rita and Stephen (who will translate, and in the case of the latter, perform) turn it from my words into their language of British Sign. The aim is to find good registers and approaches, but I really I feel like it is helping me get clarity on how to talk about the play too. The persistence and want to examine how we might do this also seems to be revealing a little more about the ideas the play contains. This also offers me strength. It feels really collaborative. I sense I want to find ways to extend this feeling outward to the audience the work will eventually meet.

Summit tells the story of an international meeting convened to resolve a crisis – the summit of the title. It tells this story in three acts, or representations, from three different perspectives. The exact nature of this crisis is never explicitly named, but the stakes are high, as it can sometimes feel like they are in the world we all inhabit at present.

The summit of the story has been called because there is a need for action. Lines are repeated and communicated in different ways and in different tenses. The story is first told from the future (I believe there could be one!), then the past, and finally the present. At then the end of the play, at the summit itself, something suddenly unexpected happens. Something small but significant, and from this moment, the play suggests, things start to change.

I can trace the work and the ideas it contains back to a few moments of origin. Things that have happened to me, work I have seen, as well as people I know or have met that I now see have influenced me and helped the work get to here. I think of performances of other pieces I have undertaken with sign language interpreters like Sue and Michael. I connect the ideas of the play to the observation in a program note by festival director Neil, who suggested my work looks to explore the space and site of theater as one of meeting.

Encouraged by my friend and producer Louise, I have finally managed to take a step into the unknown toward a long held but unfulfilled ambition of writing something for other people to perform. Cristina, another friend and academic who has read and commented on drafts of the piece as they have appeared, gave me the title of this short essay/reflection when she remarked on how the work asks us to be patient – to be patient with what we don’t understand. I feel like I am doing this all the time, now. I feel as if it could also be a request from me to us as we navigate the world in which we live today, where so many uncertainties and difficulties exist. The play is – for me at least, I hope for others too – about our otherness, about our difference, and about how we might understand it, or at least work on how we can acknowledge it.

Each individual that has been involved in this co-labor as the work moves towards production has offered and brought their own differences and perspectives to the process, their own tools of knowledge and proficiency, they offer their thoughts and perspectives and their own language of making. And through this the play has and continues to unfold towards its presentation and it begins to be met by the collaborators that are the audience.

The work is concerned with a few things I think it might be important for me and us to be thinking about. Here, in the present moment and moments we currently live. I hope it contains ideas that feel like they may be good or useful for us to think about in the socio-political circumstances and structures of our time: ideas of how we can or might get along, ideas of difficulty and diversity and freedom and language and understanding, ideas of collaboration and sharing and generosity and openness and optimism despite what challenges present themselves.

Speaking personally, I don’t feel we are always prioritizing these ideas. Or at least if we think (or think we think) we are thinking about prioritizing them, then I am not sure we are doing it enough. I don’t think I am doing enough. I am trying. I want to do better. I want us to think about the things that concern us, and think about how we can think about and act on them more. In some way the play is an attempt for me and us to think about how we can do that, and what content our lives might have as a result.

In the times in which we live – an era the late Zygmunt Bauman suggested was one of "liquid modernity" – it can feel as if we are indeed slowly becoming vapor. Melting into air. Things are changing all the time. We are constantly on the move. We can feel insecure, vulnerable, helpless, and dissatisfied as citizens. The world can feel theatrical, unreal. It can sometimes feel hard to be heard, at others, impossible to get a moment of silence. In this context and contexts, I think we sometimes question our capacity to be effective participants in our societies and communities. We can feel chances to find common interests becoming scarcer. The ability to join together in solidarity feels like it could be slipping away from our grasp.

I think – I have always thought – the theater is a space that can help us to gather in our circumstances. I think we can get into spaces like theaters (and galleries and halls) and we can gather together. We can gather together and use these spaces to help us think about our selves and each other. This feels – perhaps it has always felt – like a radical action to me. It seems particularly important to think about how we might do this in these liquid, fluid moment or moments in which we appear to currently live. At the moment, in the moments where I live, my days can seem filled with a never-ending series of events and occurrences, actions and reactions offering constantly shifting positions on and of the things that are happening. I feel like I don’t have any foundations or can sometimes feel like I am losing stability.

The theater for me has become a space or place where I, and I hope we, can get away from all the spectacular and theatrical stuff that is out there in the world, and we can take some time to think together in here about some things. It is a place where we can think about where we are and who we are and how we are and what we are doing. Where we can think about what we can do and what actions we can take. I think we can use it as a space or place with the potential to be together and think together about how we act, and how we act with each other. A place where we can consider how we act together, and think about how we might be able to do these things differently or even better after the event of the play or performance is over and we applaud and return to the world outside the theater. That’s the aim, anyway.

The theater, then, can be seen as a place where ideas can become comprehensible. But more and more – and certainly through the processes of working on this new play – I think it is also a place where we can reflect on the incomprehensible. A space where we can consider and reflect on some of that which we don’t know, that we feel we can’t say, or that which we don’t understand. Difficult stuff. Different stuff. I think it is a place where can think about, and where we can be patient with that.

These ideas started, as always, as instinct, but what I am playing with here, and the practical restraints I have put on myself since the start of this process – to write for languages I cannot speak or sign – has brought them into focus more acutely for me. In what often feels like testing times this attempt – where I and we are fortunate enough to be able to sit around café tables and play in rehearsal rooms and think about moving into theaters using and acknowledging more than one language with people – allows an acknowledgement and celebration of our differences as well as similarities.

I think and hope it challenges what I (and I hope we) know and makes me (and I hope us) think about what we don’t. Above all, it has simply brought me some hope in what feels at the moment like some testing times. As Rebecca Solnit notes in a citation I typed at the top of an early draft of the play:

To hope is to give yourself to the future, and that commitment to the future makes the present inhabitable."