Roots / Blooming: reflecting on a Landscape
19 May 2020

Hello. Clara speaking.

In November 2018, just as we opened Landscape (1989) at New Diorama, I was contacted by Caridad Svich about writing a piece for Contemporary Theatre Review's 'Backpages'. Caridad is an American playwright and one of Backpages' editors, which invites creatives across the theatre industry to write short pieces about their work, work they've seen, or any other topic that takes their fancy. Given the show had just opened, Caridad suggested writing a retrospective of how we made it - and I did just that.

It was published in CTR 29.2 in 2019, and they've kindly allowed us to reprint it here. It's strange something I wrote in Autumn 2018 becoming publicly available in May 2020, and I certainly feel the writer of the piece below to be a kind of stranger to me.

So, to accompany the recording of Landscape (1989) we've just uploaded, a month before it should have been touring, here's a missive from past Clara for the present day.

EDIT: This text contains reference to the theatre-maker Chris Goode, who was an abuser and manipulater of many. We first met him when we (Ben & Clara) were students and he invited us onto his podcast, where the conversation mentioned below took place. While we have no desire to perpetuate his name and career, it would feel wrong to delete him from this piece of writing and edit history. We’d like to take this space instead to point to this courageous collection of texts on the experience of working with, and then trying to expose, Chris - by Maddy Costa, Lucy Ellinson, Xavier de Sousa & Paul Paschal. We’re grateful to them and all their work. Thanks.  

In 2016, Ben Kulvichit and I made a show about joy. In 2018, we tried to make a show about endings, but then it became about mushrooms.

It begins, as it must, with a funding application. We apply for £200 plus rehearsal space from our university. The pitch is vague, all concepts: cinema, endings, narrative, death. Melancholy, where joy was, as the driving force. ‘The End of History?’ by Francis Fukuyama. [1] The narrative question of how endings are signposted on stage and screen. If there’s a pattern. How we can fuck with that sign-posting. Ben wants to design a light-gate, a curtain of light cutting through haze, and he has this vision of us stepping through it. On the basis of so little, we get the money.

The project is confirmed in January 2018, alongside two or three of our friends’ shows. Together, we make up a schedule of two-person devised shows, to be performed over the early new year. It feels nice to have company.

It’s called The End. It’s about endings.

We collect songs and clips in a Google doc entitled ‘slow cook’. There’s the ending of West Side Story (1957), the procession beside Tony’s body in the parking lot. There’s the kiss montage from Cinema Paradiso (1988). There’s a song by St Vincent called Smoking Section (2017), where she sings over and over ‘it’s not the end’. Further down is a bullet point list of STUFF THAT COULD BE IN THE SHOW. There’s lots of false endings. Practical ideas. Weather forecasts. Song lyrics. Somehow, all of this will coalesce. These untethered intellectual elements, there because of gut feeling, will find their way to the physical, the emotional, the communal. It’s a kind of alchemical process that divines only one method when there are many, with no recipe but with plenty who’ve tried before us. There is investment in the magic of it, as if by putting all these things on the same page they’ll combine of their own accord, while we’re not looking. Slow cook.

I read a quote from Eduardo Galeano: ‘I walk ten steps and the horizon runs ten steps ahead ... What good is utopia? That’s what: it’s good for walking’. [2]

In January, we walk up and down. We cross the room a hundred times and more, and then we watch it back on my laptop. We look for patterns. We walk slow, slower, slow-mo, and then we sprint. We move our arms about. We call it choreography. This show is going to be more movement-led than the last so we’re trying to work towards a visual language, carry on the conversations with our bodies. We talk a lot about film endings and recreate poses. We play at being Lear and Cordelia. I do a passable Dr Strangelove impression. It’s a giddy time and we go in loops with our spare rehearsal hours.

We read books. We have a line we use in company bios about ‘finding a journey from the intellectual to the emotional’, and this is where that starts. It feels like we make hieroglyphic work this way. We search the words ‘ending’, ‘end’, and ‘apocalypse’ in the library database. We collect potentially useless armfuls of books and scan through them on the sofas. I spot a listing for The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. [3] I say: oh my god. Ben says: oh my god. We pick it out and skim the first pages greedily, falling into the light, smart, absorbing style. And yet – we don’t fully return to this book until the summer, when we’ll completely rework the show into its current mushroom-filled state. But we don’t know that right now.

The material falls into neat little sections as time goes by. In February we both have other commitments, and essays, and one rehearsal we both just turn up and have a cry about being in final year. But we also choreograph two dances, working alone with headphones and then swapping moves, teaching each other. I write some text one day that goes straight into the show, as is, on the paper I first get it down on – a prop for a letter written on the road in the American wilderness. Ben pitches a narrative section where we cook mushrooms live onstage that initially seems insane to me, but the more we talk about it, I can’t shake the image of those two weary travellers, slipping heavy rucksacks off their shoulders and surveying the post-apocalyptic horizon. We have an argument about whether it should go at the beginning or the end.

Then we get to the inevitable structuring session and the framework comes together pretty easy. At this point, we realise this version, the scratch we’ll perform for our friends, isn’t going to be near the ‘real’ version. But we decide to commit to the full version of this fake version, creating and learning sections that we’re unsure about and planning full technical work-ups. Ciara Shrager, on lights, and Nat Norland, on sound, work quickly and from very little. We decide Nat will provide live sound and he brings lots of boxes and wires into the rehearsal room and makes them make noise for us. This expands the number of performers from two to three, and we score a section where he sings harmony with us from the sound desk.

We haven’t forgotten the mushrooms. We just don’t know much about them yet.

We buy punnets from Tesco on the way into rehearsals. Chestnuts are our favourite. The earthy smell conjures the outside that we’re trying to bring inside. We discover, somehow, that they explode on impact. One day we make a mushroom field, brown caps scattered around like decapitated heads, stalks removed to give the illusion that they’re growing straight out of the lino. Spread out over the rehearsal room floor in constellations, clusters of twos and threes that we’re constructing to look organic. We lie down and stargaze. This makes it into the scratch.

It’s nearly March, and we still can’t decide what the show is called. All the applications we’ve sent so far say The End, and we’re sort of happy with that. But the problem is its gimmicky one- word descriptiveness, its set-up that promises a suitable punchline of a show we’re not sure we’ll deliver. When we spoke to theatre-maker Chris Goode about CELEBRATION (2017) we discussed the useful work a title can do in excusing, contravening, framing a show, especially oblique, post-dramatic stuff. He said it was a good title, and it was, but now we can’t conjure the same magic for this more difficult show. We list the potential titles on the wall, nicked from films or books or essays. We jump on everyone who visits us in the room and ask them to pick one, and then violently disagree on the merits of their choice. One day, after reading some more of Anna Tsing’s mushroom book, Ben writes a title up on the board: Oregon After the Fires. It sticks. The Facebook event goes live.

A few weeks before the scratch, I discover a conspiracy. We started the process with Fukuyama’s ‘The End of History?’, published in 1989 but more importantly about the year 1989. The text often paraphrased badly as I’m about to do, claims that the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the arrival at a final form of government, that Western liberal democracy was the end of innovation and we’d reached not the end of events, but the end of history. I’m catching up on other reading later in the term to find the year pop up again, as an economic turning point in Paul Mason’s book Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. [4] He names it as a point at which economists thought their current financial system was finalised: ‘the perfect expression of human rationality’. [5] It rings of Fukuyama’s ‘final form of human government’. We returned to earlier questions of ours about the universal desire for a narrativised life: the strangeness of knowing the world began before you did, and the inability to situate your personal timeline within greater history. The feeling of every generation that surely this is the worst it’s been, that it really is the end of the world this time. The way the dates and ideas line up makes me shiver. Then the final alarm bells: Tsing’s book opens with an account of the matsutake mushroom trade in Oregon, how after environmental legislation forced timber industries out of the national forests, shutting down the corporations, the wild work of foraging took over. The year the switchover took place? You guessed it. I find it maddening. We write the dates up on the whiteboard, a before and after panel:

wall/no wall
history/no history

We don’t know what to do with this knowledge. It doesn’t make the scratch.

We buy charity shop costumes. The day comes around. It’s strangely easy to perform, as its mostly dance and only about forty minutes. Ciara designs the show as she plots the states, and we tech and perform it back to back. We’re in a double bill with another show, written and directed by Nat and with lighting by Ben. It’s the better show, but it’s on after us so it’s okay.

For the first time, we’re desperate for feedback. CELEBRATION was made in a ten-week blur, but here we’re suffering labour pains. People say they didn’t get it but that they liked it, and people say they didn’t get it and they didn’t like it. Nearly everyone feels unmoored by the lack of text. It also takes performing the piece in front of an audience to make us realise that it’s very po-faced, and ultimately ignores the fact that there are thirty other people in the room with us. We don’t look anyone in the eye. It feels weird. We make a mental note.

Then we’re into final deadline season through April and May. We each write around 20,000 words of assessments and sit the same three-hour Shakespeare exam. We get drunk in the park. And the day after our university degree ends and our library passes stop working, we do CELEBRATION again in the 27°C heat on a square of green astro-turf outside the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, London. It’s probably the last time we’ll ever perform it. We both get heat-stroke. The day after that, we’re back in the Theatre Department at Warwick University, planning our rehearsal schedule for the first day of reworking Oregon After the Fires. The switch between old and new shows in such proximity is head-spinning.

This time, we pay attention to Anna Tsing. She’s got a lot to tell us. In July, we read and research the story of the mushroom gatherers in the National Forests and find so many recognisable tales of precarious work, fleeing danger, finding community. We ditch about 90% of the scratch, reserving ‘The Harvest Dance’, a section of walking, and a text called ‘The Letter’. We agree that we don’t like the title. We rediscover John Cage: famous composer and amateur mycologist. We read his mushroom writings and listen to him speak in his halting, falsetto way.

We get obsessed with geography. We dot green tape on the floor until we’ve marked the Oregonian Deschutes River down the centre of the space. I trace a map of North America into my notebook and mark out all the important spots: where John Cage lived in Carmel; where Anna Tsing teaches in Santa Cruz; where 2018 ecology film Annihilation was test-filmed in St Marks Nature Reserve, Florida; where the mushroom pickers are in the Malheur National Forest, Oregon. I have some idea that if we draw a line between all of them, we’ll create a path, the curve of a dance. I want to transfer all this to the floor and mark my way through it. Now it’s about walking, but it’s also about where we’re going.

We discover the Humungous Fungus, an armillaria ostoyae, the single largest living organism on the planet. Humming below the ground in the National Forest. We can’t believe our luck.

Slowly, we add back in the text that we withheld from the scratch. Including these layers of meaning feels like cheating, but it’s only widening the margin of people who can tap into what’s going on. With that, the 1989 conspiracy has its moment. These weeks are hard. It feels like the show is lacking cohesion, a set-piece, but all that’s really missing, as we only find out towards the end, is the drawing out of ideas, delicately bringing the concepts, motifs to the surface, trying not to break the whole thing as we go.

Somewhere along the way it stops being a show about possible futures, utopias, and starts being about the very real ending of climate disaster. The show we wanted to make has disappeared, and somewhere in the world, the show that needed to be made has found us.

We invite people in to watch a wobble-through of the material so far. They tell us that the show they’ve just seen is all about listening, which, of course it is. It makes complete sense that we had to wait for our generous, intelligent friends to make sense of it all for us. We get as much done as possible, pencil in the rest, and leave the show mid-dance on a Friday afternoon.

We both graduate. We both do a summer project in Oxford. We submit a festival application for Oregon that requires a title, but none of us like the one we’ve got. We sit on a grassy quad outside the North Wall Arts Centre with producer Emily and brainstorm. It’s nearly called Situations of Earth and Rock and Even Sunlight. But then it’s not. Ben pitches Landscape (1989), and we decide we all like it in less than ten minutes.

Ben and Emily go to the Fringe. I go home.

In the last days of August, we meet in my kitchen in London, along with sound-designer-turned-dramaturg Nat, and the three of us fix the show. Ben and I both worked on a show with the UK company Wardrobe Ensemble this summer, and from Tom Brennan and James Newton, we re- learnt the skill of polishing. That’s what we do here. So often the devising room prefers speed to refinement, where the monumental focus on creating material dominates. Now, every inch of the text is ironed over. We put the opening speech into its sixth draft, aware of the pressure on those few words to win the room, or risk losing them for the next sixty minutes. These precious two days, the first ones out of the bubble of free university rehearsal space, move mountains. We say goodbye until late October.

A week before the show opens at the Warwick Arts Centre, we both come to stay at Ciara’s house in Canley, just outside our ex-university campus. We spend the last week of the month flitting around rooms in the Theatre Department, the Arts Centre, the Humanities Building. It’s too soon to be back after graduation but we’re here anyway, making the show for free. The bits are all there, they just need finishing or learning or both. We choreograph like mad to a Mountain Goats’ song for a few days: precise, fast-paced moves that leave our untrained bodies out of breath. There are some crucial hours spent on timing the complex middle section of the show, where sound, stage power, and lighting all have cues from an onstage countdown timer that Danny the technician can’t see from the box. This week we feel simultaneously the most like performers and makers: running every aspect of delivering the show in terms of design, marketing, prop-making, but also realising that some sections will only come together on the strength of our performance, that we just have to be good.

And then it’s on. There’s about twenty minutes between finishing the truncated tech run and starting the performance. We reset props. Danny barely has time to get a sandwich. I frantically get changed and drink water. The call comes down from the box. Ben and I walk on from the wrong entrances. And then it’s over.

And then we do it again, in London, late November. It’s almost a month later. The wildfires are raging in California, and we skip an Extinction Rebellion climate protest to go to tech day. Time onstage feels short and dreamlike – CELEBRATION only worked if we pumped life into it, really yelled and sang and pushed ourselves. Landscape requires more precision, more complex lighting states, more props preset in the correct pockets of rucksacks, more timers that must all hit zero at once. But once we’re in it, the machine of the action really carries us through – ironic given the focus on nature, the organic, human survival. But it’s nice for us. We pack up the suitcases and head straight to the pub, where a Last Supper’s worth of friends are seated at the longest table at the back.

We’ll perform it again in 2019, in February, and hopefully August, and hopefully September, and October, and November, and however long there are people to listen.

[1] Francis Fukuyama, ‘The End of History?’, The National Interest, no. 16 (1989): 3-18.

[2] Eduardo Galeano, ‘Quotable Quote’, Goodreads, https:// utopia-is-on-the-horizon-i-move-two-steps-closer (accessed January 15, 2019).

[3] Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015).

[4] Paul Mason, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), 4.

[5] Ibid., xiv.