First meeting. First question.

‘What’s your practice?’

‘I write. I write plays.’

‘Yes, but what’s your practice?’

I feel out of my depth, out of my language. I’m not a visual artist. I’m uncertain about my place here.

‘Here’ is a medieval tower, built for protection, housing guns, then used variously as a prison, house of correction, warehouse, museum of archaeology…all these things I find out later. For the moment, at the beginning, ‘here’ is a building of unexpected beauty, awaiting rebuilding and reincarnation as an arts and heritage centre. I am one of eight people invited to be resident in the last months before closure. I am the sole writer amongst visual artists; in my hand a pen is for writing.

Our residency has various purposes: for one artist the project is academic research. I spend time puzzling over what the words of her investigation actually mean, then resolve to just get on and do what the brief says: make work individually for an exhibition (it turns into two exhibitions), consider how to open the tower out to the wider community, and work with others. I declare that my intention is not to make a play, but to use the opportunity to explore writing poems, to do something new.

We open with a series of workshops, taking turns to lead. For some reason I volunteer to begin — it’s probably better for my nerves, but I also have the sense that I’m older and feel somehow responsible. Over the course of these workshops I see that we are in essence doing similar things, just using different tools, and I become more comfortable, until one session throws me completely.

We are all given a piece of cardboard with a circular viewing hole; on the front it says: ‘I am looking’. We are instructed to go to the busy shopping precinct in the city and draw in public. I want to run. I’m going out with a bunch of artists who can make a pencilled curve an object of desire. My pencil drills holes in the paper. My drawing spills off the page. I am clearly talentless. People are looking at me. There is no character, costume or song to hide behind. A voice rings out in the crowd of shoppers, contemptuous, annoyed, hostile: ‘There’s too many weird people in Southampton’.

I feel completely exposed. Oh, kill me now.

This incident stays with me. It is not the epithet that upsets me: weirdness is neither here nor there; it is the sense that the city is so divided, that there is hostility towards people doing different things and seemingly little to bring us together. I was vulnerable and thrust back into my childhood. For many years arts in a social context has been part of my work (my practice!) and I believe passionately in the transformative power of creativity and art; that moment wounded me, stirring up so many issues surrounding the place of artistic work in society and the struggle to make it available for everyone.

Later, some artists express that same kind of vulnerability around writing. Of course they do. I find my place is to encourage, to offer ways through and to give feedback — an interesting proposition in a group of eight people. Interesting and daunting. Over the years when asked for comments, I have settled on a practice of noting one thing that is effective about the work and asking one question and leaving it at that, not really finding group response very fruitful. The visual artists are used to ‘crit groups’, but still I’m not alone in anticipating that feedback might be lacerating, strategic, superficial or all of those things at once. But here going through the group experience is a given, and it’s spurious if it’s not helpful. The project finds the framework that it needs in the Critical Response Process developed by American choreographer and teacher Liz Lerman; Liz comes from the world of dance but her ‘Process’ is suitable for any discipline. Formalising the response sessions and applying the same structure to each artist avoids work being knocked off kilter by subjective criticism. But still it is daunting. Slowly, I begin to think more deeply about the project, to consider it from the outside, to wonder what it is exactly and where it is going — and what I am doing for my part.

I breathe aloud the wish that I might do some printmaking.

‘Just do it.’

The response is so unquestioning that I am unexpectedly liberated: I sign up for a short course, then for a foundation. Printing is an experiment without ties. It’s another way of thinking: absorption in the image sits in a different part of the brain to language. I question whether I allow myself this room to experiment in my writing. Have I lost something along the way? I enjoy working with actors, but is there fun in my writing? Does it have the same kind of courage? I resolve to relax and leave behind the stress I create from premature investment in the outcome; I begin to enjoy myself hugely, investigating historical books and printing methods, thinking about the interaction of word and image and different ways to present text.

Along the way to the final exhibition in the Tower we put on a number of events, opening it to the outside world: filmshows, an alternative fashionfest, a big event inviting women to fill the tower and claim the space, a death café, writing marathons, making days, tours of the building… We all work away on our own pieces, beside each other but, strangely, cross-fertilisation does not happen. When it comes down to it, the elastic length of the residency is not our friend; the delayed start of building work strands us. Some people only have the time originally predicated to spend on the project, so their days become thin. Others begin to obsess. I have plans for far too much work. Conflicting needs for space and time appear. Life makes other demands: across a period of eighteen months the personal lives of eight artists encompass children leaving, death, illness, relationship crises, lack of funds. We begin to falter when our administrator leaves and we have no formal structure to fill the gap and make sure the necessary jobs get done. Just getting eight people into the room together becomes a feat. I begin to appreciate the clear structures of making theatre.

I think a lot about theatre. I make linocuts, and devise a project to put them into the public sphere in secret; I had said I wanted to write poems, and this I do — but I look at the ancient walls and know that not to make a piece of theatre, not to invite an audience, would be to pass up a wonderful opportunity. I have to fill this beautiful medieval space with words and movement and bring it to life. And so I turn to my actor collaborators for help and devise a theatrical presentation of some poems; I ask an artist who runs a project against food waste to work with me and make a banquet for the evening. Tentatively another artist, who works with textiles, asks if she might embroider one of the poems on a cotton shift for the exhibition. I am happy that she would want to do this and feel it is a meaningful way to bring our work together. This extends into the theatrical event as she makes an identical plain shift for an actress to wear in performance: she is an embodiment of a real person, the first woman I discovered in the archives who had been in the prison, and that memory of her lives on in the embroidered shift for the duration of the exhibition. Another artist shows me her poems for the exhibition and I rescue my favourite from the reject pile — she had failed to make a satisfactory recording of it, but to me the beautiful rhythm is quite clear and I can read it for her. And in this way, a sideways, tentative way, asking for another’s work to complement our own, we begin to work together.

Last meeting. Making a pamphlet for publication we reflect on the project and what we have learned: learning itself can be hard, but there’s always time for play to open a space for new impulses, new strategies; sometimes this requires having the confidence not to look at the ending before the beginning. For myself, I have a new sense of what writing can encompass — a broader practice, which importantly, and possibly paradoxically, includes a little more critical self-awareness and the courage not to be afraid of what I don’t know. A pen is not only for writing.

Deborah Gearing is a writer, theatremaker and printmaker whose plays have been performed in venues from the National Theatre to a domestic garage. She makes theatre with community groups. The exhibition WE ARE OPEN took place in God’s House Tower, Southampton in September 2017.

23-09-2019

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