Backstage

An interview with Jesse Cox (Wael Zuaiter: Unknown) and Kate Hunter (Memorandum)

Wael Zuaiter-Sarah Walker-11Photo by Sarah Walker

In both our current production, Wael Zuaiter: Unknown, and our next production Memorandum, sound plays as an important role in the works as the live performer.  We spoke with Jesse and Kate – the creators and performers of these original new works about their artistic practices. What connects these works? How different are they?

Wael Zuaiter: Unknown plays until May 11.

Memorandum plays between May 20 and June 1.

What is your work about?

Jesse – Wael Zuaiter Unknown is the story of a Palestinian intellectual Wael Zuaiter who was assassinated by Israel’s secret service Mossad. He was also my great aunt Janet Venn-Brown’s fiancé and so I was intrigued at how our family had got caught up in this story. My work explores the theories about why Wael was targeted. Its a love story, a spy thriller and I hope a window into a more gentle conversation about the Middle East.

Kate – Memorandum is an investigation into the highly unreliable nature of memory: the way we craft and manipulate our personal narratives, our autobiographies, to suit ourselves.  

Truth, fiction, memory, the way we construct stories, either our own or others, seem to be important to both of you as artists.  Where has this interest come from?

Jesse – It has been said that non-fiction is the greatest fiction. And I think we sometimes forget how even us documentary storytellers make very conscious decisions about how we construct narrative. It is important for me to be truthful and also represent the people I interview correctly, but I am always looking for creative ways the story can unfold and reveal itself – how to hook an audience and keep them guessing until the end. That is such a beautiful thing to craft.

Kate – I think performance-makers, particularly those who come from strong devising practices in which work is generated of and by the self, often are implicitly investigating the constantly shifting territory across truth and fiction. I’ve always told stories and been curious about my own memories, but also other people’s. I often wonder, though, whether some of the stories I’ve told over my life are actually true, or whether I believe them to be true just because I’ve told them to other people so many times. This process of memory distortion – people believe the stories they tell because of frequent repetition – is a documented phenomenon in cognitive psychology known as ‘rehearsing inaccurate information’. 

I like to imagine the space of the theatre as a little like a remembering brain. Countless and varied concepts, elements and ideas converge in the space of a live performance. Conventional rules of time, space, subject and object are suspended; elements are manipulated to create narrative. Poetic, pragmatic and physical objects butt up against each other, jostle for space, vie for attention, or are foregrounded or downplayed as required. The theatre acts as a zone in which the disparate things of memory: the sounds, the smells, the gestures, the feelings, and less tangible things—the conditions, the past histories, the sadnesses, the possibilities for the future— meet together in time and space.

When I was making Memorandum, I was also caring for my mother who was dying from dementia, so there is a very personal and potent experience that underpins it. I was researching and reading about the neuroscience of memory and also witnessing a very real and rapid change in my mother’s personality and physical body that was sad and funny and confronting all at the same time. So memory for me is very rich territory as an artist: without it we are sort of no one. And when we die, we live on in others’ memories. Until they die. Then we’re fu%#ed.

MEMORANDUM_THEATREWORKS_PhotoBy_LeoDale 007Photo by Leo Dale

What are you wanting to achieve with the use of recorded voices in your work?

Jesse – I come from radio where voice is paramount, and when I am constructing stories everything about the voice becomes another way you can convey emotion. A certain breath or sigh, for example, on a piece of tape can reveal so much about somebody’s character.  I’ve seen some great documentary theatre and I really like the way Roslyn Oades tackles this in her documentary theatre pieces, where the performers listen to the edited interview of the person they are playing. But for this project, I wanted to bring what I love about radio into a live context and share these voices with an audience. 

Kate – I started using recorded voice purely for a pragmatic reason, as I was working alone in the studio and was seeking some method of providing outside stimulus for myself: something to respond to. So I began to record instructions for myself: things I would tell myself to do, lists of tasks. Then I played these pre-recorded instructions to myself as I rehearsed. I began to have conversations with myself. This was the catalyst for a whole new way of working for me: a kind of ‘headphone verbatim’ for my own neurotic talkings-to-myself. Later this process became more detailed and refined as I was researching memory, particularly the context of autobiographical remembering and childhood amnesia. In Memorandum, the recorded voice enables my ‘remembering’ self to speak with my ‘remembered’ selves, a kind of manipulation of time and place so that past and present avatars can interact with each other in real time, on stage. I don’t have other voices, other than my own.

Both of you amplify your own voices in your works – why?  What impact do you think this has on an audience?

Jesse – A very practical one! We wanted to make sure that there wasn’t a jarring between my voice and the voices from the interviews. We wanted it to be a seamless aural experience.

Kate – I’m not actually a big fan of actors using microphones in plays: I think it’s often not necessary and can alienate audiences. Whatever happened to vocal projection? I blame Rock Eisteddfods. But in Memorandum, the amplification of my live voice is a specific choice. The amplified voice is another player in the piece, so it needs to formally match the pre-recorded narrative. Using a microphone gives me much more space to experiment with the stutters, the ums and ers and other ‘accidents’ that have arisen in the text because my scripts are verbatim. These sibilant sounds, very quiet whispers, breaths and sighs become part of the whole soundscape of the work. This creates a resonant, suspenseful and imaginative experience for the audience in which senses become crisper and hearing becomes sharper. There are lengthy moments where the audience is sitting in the dark, listening and being still. I think this is good. We don’t do this enough in life. This space allows the audience to bring their own individual histories and imaginations to bear on the work, constructing their own readings of what transpires. 

Both works have many layers to them… eg projection, composition, spoken word, pre-recorded voices…what is the process of bringing all of these layers together..how as performers and creators do you edit the work, shape the work and the experience for the audience?

Jesse – One of the creative challenges we had was how to deal with lots of different styles of imagery. There are illustrations, photographs and archival documents. We decided to only start to reveal the hard ‘evidence’, the actual photos of Wael and Janet and the archival documents towards the end of the show, when we start to break down the storytelling and finally reveal the facts as we know them. We’ve almost lulled the audience into a false sense of security with these evocative illustrations and then we ask them to make up their own mind about who Wael was. We also knew that the music and sound had to be really rich to be able to create a space where an audience could get used to the idea of listening, so the work has lots of sound textures, field recordings and a live score.

Kate – I was lucky in that I made the show as part of a practice-led PhD so Memorandum has had a long incubation period of experimentation and investigation. It’s really the only way to work and I’m highly resistant to the idea that work that is edgy, urgent and risky is made quickly.  My process is a constant re-construction and re-making of an idea. I record my verbatim improvised monologues, transcribe them, sometimes re-write them or tweak them, re-record them, and then experiment with my live voice over the top. This quite crafted and writerly process, however, is also underpinned by my experience in improvisation and physical theatre training. So there’s a lot of consideration about architecture, spaces, and choreography. Often I would construct the films, the sound scapes, the recording, and then dance or duet with them in the studio to develop scenes. The wonderful Richard Vabre worked with me to assist with the design aspects of Memorandum, but I haven’t had a team of audio-visual geeks assisting me: I’ve made all the digital material and audio myself, and I’m really rather proud of that.

Of course, the constructing and re-constructing process that occurs in performance-making also occurs when we remember. In memory we are constantly re-making our own narratives. 

Who has influenced your artistic practice and why?

Jesse – Radio makers Tony Barrell, Ira Glass, Jad Abumrad, Francesca Panetta to name just a few.

Kate – I’ve been strongly influenced by the composition work of directors like Anne Bogart, with whom I’ve studied in NYC. And solo performers like Marie Brassard. But all sorts of things really: like the post-production sound work and audio style of film director Jacques Tati, and Laurie Anderson, and the writings of cognitive psychologist Susan Engel and neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. And the beautiful documentation of Tadeusz Kantor’s production of ‘The Dead Class’, in which a classroom of old folk stumble and parade through the space, cleaved to limp dolls of their childhood selves. And video artist Bill Viola, particularly a stunning retrospective I saw at the Getty Museum a few years ago.  And the ravages that the process of dying inflicts on a human body, which I’ve seen close up.  And Umberto Eco’s writings about lists.. I’m very interested in lists, and there are a lot of lists in Memorandum: Eco claims that we like lists because they give us a sense of ordering things when in fact we have no control over the ultimate chaos which is death. I could go on. 

Kate you recently posted on facebook ‘A memory is only as real as the last time you remembered it. The more you remember something, the less accurate it becomes.’  Talk with us a bit more about this concept?  Why do you believe this?

This is a quote from Jonah Lehrer, from his book ‘Proust Was a Neuroscientist’, and it refers to the actual process a neuron (a brain cell) undergoes when a memory is taking place. There is a powerful and elemental change that occurs in the chemical structure of a neuron as a person recalls a memory – the composition of the neuron fundamentally alters. This has implications for our notions about ‘truth’ in memory. Not only are memories stretched, amended and otherwise distorted as we go through life, telling our stories. Memories are physically re-made, too, in the brain, in the process of remembering. As memories are recalled, they are reconstructed. The process of remembering is a process of composition. And I think this really speaks to my personal experience, the questions I have about my own murky weird memories and whether they really happened. I’m curious about this idea as a metaphor for performance-makers and devisors: that we make work in a space that sits between what is true, what is imagined, and what is fictional. 

Jesse your piece is constructed relying on the memory of others about Wael?  How accurate do you think others memories of Wael are?

How accurate is any memory? I remember for years believing that as a kid I had dropped a jar of honey and remembered with exact detail how it fell almost in slow motion as it smashed onto the floor. My brother kept telling me that I had in fact stolen his memory, but I couldn’t shake it from my own collection of memories. Then one day years later I woke and realised that there was no way it could have been me. Now this is a ridiculous, meaningless memory, but it shows how memory is subjective. In telling a story 40 years after the fact, how much truth can we actually uncover? I am interested in how different people have constructed their versions of Wael through their memory. Ultimately that is what telling stories is about, they are told and retold and shaped by different people’s versions of events, so I think this project says a lot about how we remember and share those memories.

Wael Zuaiter-Sarah Walker-2Photo by Sarah Walker