Allistair Newton (Ecstasy of Mother Theresa) Interviews Bembo Davies of the:
“FORGET ZIS” Experiment
Directed by Andrzej Sadowski
Presented by The Institute for Non-Toxic Propaganda
Featuring: Bembo Davies
An elder statesman returns from his voyages with some nagging observations: Can the ‘Good Audience People’ permit him to exercise upon them his theories? Exerting virtuoso quibbling, and interweaving comic skills with militant theatrical nakedness, veteran Bembo Davies subtly nudges us towards the intricacies of our collective denial mechanisms.
1. You were creating work in a very exciting period in the history of independent theatre in Toronto; one still hears murmurs about the excitement of the late 70s/early 80s in the right circles. What are your memories of that time and how did that milieu influence your development as a theatre artist?
Alistair, are you suggesting that the excitement has dropped off of late?
Actually, I’m even older; in 1969-71, as a local teenager without any imprinted desire to do theatre, I was dragged into 9, or so, very divergent productions. ( Nowadays, I suspect the list would be longer, as all the impromptu/happening events would have become CV-fodder as conceptualised, hyper-documented performance installations.) Major blood-transfusions included FUT ’70 (Festival of Underground Theatre). THOG’s tribal rants, and the open stage all-nighters at Global Village where i had my start as floorwasher. Entering Number 11 (old Passe Muraille), or Theatre 2nd Floor the space was as evocative as the performances. Cutting my teeth working with some very innovative souls, the legacy must hopefully be an adherence to the raw energy of creation with a minimalist, found-art scrap nature. I don’ t know if the city still houses dirt-floor basements on which to rehearse.
2. You have lived and created theatre in some of the most exciting centres for alternative theatre practice in the world. How has that artistic/theatrical/cultural experience shaped you as an artist? Have any of the great Eastern European masters (Jerzy Grotowski, Tadeusz Kantor etc) influenced you as a theatre practitioner?
I beg to differ on a central placing, but provincial Norway is perhaps closer to the loop than provincial Upper Canada. I wouldn’ t have survived but for Sven Åge Birkeland’s programming for Bergen International Theatre which has regularly brought unique theatrical voices such as: Societas Rafael Sanzios, Theatre de la Radeau, TG Stan and the Houkka Brothers. The greatest cultural difference to my Canadian upbringing, is that these are freelance ensembles, rather than a rotating pool of freelance actors. As a result each troop develops their own expressive language coloured by the need to exist beyond linguistic borders; story is often subservient to the actor’s physical task. These pieces are survival tools, life rafts; uncomfortable artists who spread their web as gestures of resistance.
The Forget Zis piece had its genesis the day after witnessing Devero Theatre Society’s toughest of the tough, butoh street theatre parable The Execution of Pierrot/Arkan in Szczecin, Poland. For some of us, it was the eve of the tenth anniversary of massacre at Sczrebrenice, and these Russians in exile, based in Dresden were waving their sausages for Polacks in the courtyard of my Prussian Jewish ancestor the Überpresident of Pomerania. Negotiating such resonance may be less accessible in let us say — a Toronto bistro.
Forget Zis takes as its psycho-dramaturgical model Andrzej Sadowski’s A Maudlin Tale, so it was natural to get him aboard as director. I deliberately set rehearsals in Krakow in order to absorb vestigial elements of Granny’s Uncle Julius. The best part of Polish theatre is the acute chauvinism: since Poles believe that theatre has preserved their culturally identity; everyone seems duty-bound to go to the theatre twice a week.
3. You’ve billed your upcoming piece as an “experiment”. What is the role/importance of experimentation in your process as a theatre artist?
I didn’t have a method on this one: a pile of notes is a pile of notes. Working with anyone else, I’d build a safe thematic grid to fill in and stretch them over. This time, I was adamantly circumventing the director/dramaturg role. After 25 years, I felt the push to force myself back on stage as an extreme sport. The ‘experiment’ is if I can weave a palatable understanding with the audience people with my bare words.
In a European context, I’d describe this as archetypal Canadian theatre. The willingness to perform the equivalent of a sod hut: it needn’t be pretty, you can throw it up in an afternoon, and one needn’t be sentimental about abandoning things, it can only get cumulatively better.
This became an essential element of my acting experience after partaking a re-education program as a Christmas Mummer in Newfoundland. It was the perfect antidote after two years potentially damaging exposure at the world’s driest theatre training institution. Playing the Mummers’ Play’s traditional medieval name calling ritual at parties, in the prison, on buses and foreign fishing vessels, one had no choice but to augment the raw text with palpably, spontaneous invention. This theatre of the moment has followed my work: yesterday’s brilliant discover can always be sacrificed in favour of more pressing engagement.
During the first edition of the FZ experiment, I felt the need to jettison my first two pages of considered introduction, in favour of a naked, truthful start. Nakedness is a major tenet of my work: that the actor/writer can most genuinely assemble the elements of a performance under the added ingredient of the audience’s glare. At times one is desperate, but as far as I have ascertained the ‘super sub-text’ of all theatre is: “Am I saying this correctly?”. When the actor is so intransigent as to ignore all but the certified gems of the writer in favour of some curiously scented, loose thread of a possibility, who knows what may transpire…
That I begin the evening trying to claw my way out from the depths of a black hole isn’t actually very smart. So far it’s just about even: 2 hard-fought wins, 2 tortuous losses, 11 honorable draws and 1 no-show.
4. I can hear you wrestling with the nature of the relationship between the writer and the performer in the creation of this piece. Can you speak to some of the ways in which you navigate what can be a challenging endeavour: performing your own writing?
It is horrible, it is childish, it is humiliating. The playwright impulsively throws an unfinished work at the feet of the actor; aware that his gems will be sabotaged, he counts upon the neural St. Vitus dance of the actor to supply some kind of infectious, satisfactory resolution. The actor doubts the wisdom of this proposition – but gamely twists and turns every wee scrap and clue in hope of distilling a navigable emotional through-line; gems may fall by the wayside, but if the attendant Gods of Theatre are willing, tonight’s solution will delve new depths. The director, knowing all too well that the actor will only dismiss his helpful hints as those of a pedantic busybody, concerns himself with having faith in the process. The producer lifts his head from his hands to put on a brave front. The PR department can only bluff.
5. What is your view of the social function of the theatre? I get the sense that you believe in Aristotelian catharsis and theatre-as-ritual. Do you believe that Theatre can serve as a kind of secular church service?
It gave me an enormous confirmation reading Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines. He traces how theatre-like song and dance, predate speech in the evolution of human interrelations (circa 50,000 years ago). Yes, we are shamans, yes we negotiate with the Gods on behalf of the audience, yes it hurts. Raised playing theatre in Curling Rinks and Union Halls, the post-performance debate and church tea has always provided the moments of social healing.
6. You write about your ideas with a passion that is absolutely palpable; even though we are conducting this “interview” by intercontinental email, I can almost feel your fire. What daemons are you hoping to exercise, and what do you want your audiences to walk away with from your experiment?
You Bastard! I operate subconsciously hoping against hope that each performance will spawn a flock of raving lunatics that can’t wait to occupy each his/her own street corner, and rant their way forth to community consensus for decisive, visionary political action. This much is obvious: the first step towards breaking the the straight-jacket culture of passive consumerism is an exorcism through active self-purging.
7. How do you view the role of the artist in society? Does the artist exist to instruct and demonstrate to an audience or is his/her role simply to probe and investigate? To your mind, is there a place for answers in a theatre of questions?
You’ve now asked me four questions about being a ‘theatre artist’. I’ve skirted them until now, but I shouldn’t deny this… I probably still believe in the theatre’s capacity to distill truths. The discussion of instructive theatre has been done to death. For a while, I concerned myself with being ‘poetically correct’. This included placing oneself as subject of each piece, and as such the one least likely (and most badly placed) to draw political conclusions. Of course, this was a construct, but the only viable rhetoric with which to shape a participatory process. The question is built into the pitch of the production; answers are found through the performance of it. The audience is asked to verify the findings. Be prepared to re-write.
8. I hope you find these questions interesting, I’ve stayed away from probing you to reveal too much of the actual content of the argument you will be presenting with the piece but I’m interested in hearing you discus it if you’d care to.
I suspect I should, but in the tabla rasa modus described above, it is difficult to retain the over-all plan. I wanted to make a humanly human ritual that would address our chronic post-traumatic stress dysfunction. In my dreams, it would break the taboo of naming our collective denial mechanism, and result in a uniquely liberating agent with which to spur many a constructive discussion.
We have known about ecological breakdown since when? The Limits to Growth, 1972? I’m a parent. My thoroughly bribed generation hasn’t really lifted a finger. Every international congress of concerned citizens that I attend strands upon the same issue. We know the problems, we can’t envisage anything more than discussing minutiae.
At this moment, the results of the experiment are at best inconclusive, but I am distinctly looking forward to bringing it all back home.