Today’s post was going to think about death: after all, IBT17 is drawing to a close, and quite a lot of the work here invites a consideration of time, and the body, and the body after life has gone. But then I had a conversation with Rosemary Waugh, the writer I first met at IBT13 as part of its mentoring programme, who was glowing from having seen Stacy Makishi’s Vesper Time and Katy Baird’s Work Shy on consecutive days. She pointed out that the big theme for her this year has been joy: specifically, work that, through making its audience happy, invites us also to act towards social change.
As she said it, something struck me: most of the writing I’ve done in this IBT space has been, not negative exactly, but inclined towards melancholy. During the entire five days, I’ve been trying, and failing, to write about the Live Art Symposium, in particular the anger, frustration, anxiety expressed that day; and, on the part of some of the artists, desperation at how difficult it is to make work in this industry and survive. In the very first provocation, Selina Thompson talked candidly about living with depression, and how “the work I do is making it worse: it’s killing me”. As audience, I am inescapably complicit in that.
IBT has opened up a lot of space to deal with such emotions: of which, my most precious experience has been FK Alexander’s Recovery, a meditative hour with, she made sure to tell us at the beginning, no metaphor, no hidden meaning, nothing to understand. There’s just a room filled with cushions, bodies, and sound: shimmering gongs, golden hums, and a slow wave of white noise that builds in intensity then slowly subsides. Listening to that roar, I thought of the work James Leadbitter (the Vacuum Cleaner/J&J) has been doing with patients of mental health hospitals to design “a safe space to go mad”. Recovery was exactly that: at the heart of its tumult, so like the rush of blood in a brain in agony, a held-in scream, standing at the edge of a cliff with the wind blowing through your veins, it was possible to let go. Just let go.
As Rosemary makes clear in her brilliant review, Vesper Time also thinks about how to live with depression, with Makishi being honest (probably – the lines of truth and fiction are fascinatingly blurry) about her own “Great Depression”. But it does this with lightness, humour, absurd jokes and puns, and a conjurer’s ability to catch an audience in its spell. For Rosemary, this is in sharp contrast to a lot of work she sees for Exeunt, which bludgeons people with the weight of how bad things are. Instead, Makishi’s awareness of how bad things are is counterbalanced by the pleasure it’s possible to take in sharing a room and a moment of time together. She dispenses advice like a self-help guru: advice that, if followed, could genuinely make a difference to people’s lives.
Another of my favourite works at IBT17 offers an even more intimate sharing, and acutely tuned balance of joy and sadness. Dancing With Strangers: From Calais to England is made and performed by Rita Marcalo, a choreographer who travelled to the Calais refugee camp to collect stories of migration from people struggling to reach the UK. As participant, you listen to the words of an individual refugee, while following Marcalo in retracing a dance they taught her, to music from their home country – or, in the case of an irrepressible teenager from Eritrea, Beyonce. Directly before coming to IBT17, I was working on a text for performance based on twitter streams that live-documented the demolition of the Calais camps, which has been on stage in London while I’ve been in Bristol. I hope anyone who has experienced that piece will feel galvanised to support refugees across Europe however they’re able. But I’m also aware of how miserable it is to sit with that material. The stories Marcalo shares are devastating, full of pain and fear, but you never just sit and listen: you move in accord with a different body, a body frightened but still full of hope – and that inspires a very different set of feelings, a sense that you have the power to move, and do something to help.
So here I am, thinking I’m writing about joy at IBT17, but still inexorably drawn to the work that has melancholy at its core. So I’ll end with a brief note on Triple Threat, Lucy McCormick’s raucous, outrageously funny retelling of the New Testament, from the appearance of angel Gabriel to the ascension of Jesus to heaven. McCormick takes all the roles: mother, baby, wise man, whore, barking orders at her male minions and, for that matter, her audience, to whip the story along. Like Makishi, she’s adept with the puns: the massacre of the innocents, for instance, is re-enacted by drinking down a blood-red Innocent fruit juice. But Triple Threat is mostly hilarious because none of the usual social restraints matter to McCormick: and so the ease with which she shoves objects up her vagina, or the fingers of doubting Thomas into her anus, becomes the unbridled pleasure of seeing a woman trample on centuries of social convention and feminine restriction.
I love that the works I’ve mentioned here – not coincidentally, all by women – can also be seen as a collective and distinctive portrait of British society: one that is compassionate, fearless, questioning, inspiring. I’m constantly aware that In Between Time is a festival built by women in their own image: for me, that is itself a thing of joy.