As I’ve spent the last few years sliding and stumbling into the role of (coughs, gags) Interdisciplinary Artist, Newcastle’s Crack Theatre Festival has been an invaluably reckless enabler of my stuff. It’s a festival that presents unfinished and still-developing work to a engaged, savvy and generous audience. I hadn’t taken anything to Crack since launching Bomb Collar in a storeroom full of empty boxes and pigeon feathers (still the most correctly suited venue I’ve ever had for a work) in 2014.
I remember being nervous ahead of that one but it was nothing compared to this year. I feel more pressure to get Single Leg right than with anything I’ve ever created, just because of the sense that I’m repping wrestlers and the world of wrestling while not being the best wrestler myself. The Crack production team were amazing (sourcing a combat-sports-enabled venue in the centre of Newcastle was no mean feat but they achieved it through bloodhound-like tenacity) but sourcing participants in a town that has no specific wrestling scene was a down-to-the-wire nailbiter and there was basically no possibility of anything as fancy as a rehearsal before the show.
Instead Team Single Leg (Co-Devisor Rachel Roberts, Producer Skye Kunstelj and me) did as much combing over the script (which is largely just a performance model as the idea is for my interaction with the wrestlers to unfold spontaneously) as we could, trying to make sure the ideas were tight and clear.
In the end the show was largely defined by my participating wrestlers:
-Mark Howe, a good friend from Club ACT who agreed to travel with me and do the show at one week’s notice. Mark is a loquacious Man Of Letters who shares my obnoxiously cerebral approach to the sport, and also happens to be twice my size. Mark’s unguarded and dry observations about the psychology of combat sport were a hit with the audience, as was the brutal spectacle of me getting crushed beneath his leg sprawl.
-Jye Milton, a purple belt in Brazilian Ju Jitsu from the Newcastle area. I only met Jye in person 30 minutes before the show, which was purely a function of necessity but added something truly potent to the set-up. The audience fell completely in love with Jye, his earnest drive to represent his sport well (BJJ is both very similar and very different to wrestling, which added an extra expositional challenge to this iteration of the show) was matched with the natural flair for holding a room common to martial arts instructors.
-Luke Beston, Jye’s teacher and a BJJ black belt of some 25 years experience. Luke took over from Jye for the second of our two performances and was a similar hit with the crowd, projecting a craft-loving humility alongside a deep deep well of experience and skill.
I was the smallest of the four wrestlers by a fair few kilos, so the ‘underdog in the sport’ aspects of the narrative took no effort to sell (though I still managed to score here and there in the live-for-real-wrestling bits). As nervous as I was before both shows (the narratives’ recurring focus on my injury history had my paranoia about getting hurt sky-high-through-the-roof), once I was in the moment my instincts to care for and curate the experience of my participants took over and the whole thing whooshed by quite smoothly.
Which was good and bad. The show went over great with the audiences, who were made up equally of Crack crowd and Jye/Luke’s friend-and-family. Judging from the audience survey that Rachel ran they found it to be a warm, fun experience that made them feel well-educated about the subject matter. Many of them also seemed to relate the themes and ideas back to their own lives which is a key goal of the show. The form of the show is sound and the right form, we can proceed confidently from where we are.
BUT, warm fun and diverting is not gonna cut it. In my instinctual drive to care for my participants I defaulted to my Endlessly Positive Coach persona, even when demonstrating the depths of my failure and frustration. That can’t be enough. I need to be moving towards complete vulnerability, complete breakdown, my guts strung out on the floor. I need to make a space where my participants can feel free to be vulnerable, and more importantly to pounce on and exploit my vulnerability in a way that reflects the nature of athletic competition. Balancing that with the duty of care inherent in the premise will be the centre of the next development of Single Leg.
Still, we got through two super-physical shows unscathed so that’s enough for one festival right? Definitively yes, but since I’m a complete idiot…
That’s right, the third day of the festival Claire ‘The Dervish’ Granata and I zipped up our leotards and graced the people of Newcastle with the latest edition of our three hour fitness-industry-roasting live aerobics telethon Aerobicide: Feel Better. Our first daytime foray into this show, the chief highlight was the two of us dealing with the weather conditions by spontaneously incorporating a constant butoh-slow application of sunscreen into the choreography.
Crack is many things, but most importantly it’s a theatre festival that takes place at the seaside, essentially right on the beach. Never more important that when you finish three hours of non-stop heavy-costume-based physical performance. I’m asking for the ocean to be included as my primary artist support need in all of my festival applications from now on.