Out of this world

For context, this post was first published in March 2017, ahead of the making and touring of my show Out Of This World.

The fact that I’m struggling to remember how this show I’m about to finally make all started is hopefully an indication of how long it has taken to come to fruition rather than how old I am getting.

This length of time has by no means been full time but by any standards, it still has taken a while. And during this 7 years, there have been more than one occasion where either myself or others have said – “well that’s it then. We can’t do it, we just can’t make it work.” Money trouble, time, schedules, people, more money trouble. Even more money trouble. But what has got it to where we are is quite simply the talent and tenacity of a largely unacknowledged infrastructure and ecosystem without whom this project never would have happened. An exceptional group of artists, collaborators, producers, commissioners, venues, funders, family, friends, the kindness of strangers and supporters whom I am extremely lucky to have had by my side. Oh, and did I mention I’m quite stubborn? 

I’m also calling these thoughts from shed to show because my office is a converted brick privy shed and pretty much all my ideas are cultivated there. And as such, it never fails to amaze me that when I’m perhaps discussing a concept that will ultimately be seen by a few million people on TV or an idea that will take hundreds of people many months to make – little do they know, it all starts in a council house brick shed measuring 6 x 12 ft housing one half-naked, unshaven man swearing at the walls. 

My career long supporter Alan Rivett had offered me an open door with the question ‘is there anything you’d like to do?’ This meeting at Warwick Arts Centre, also involved China Plate’s Ed and Paul and I have a suspicion I met Ed in a venue bar before that, where he on behalf of WAC, possibly said something similar. I think.

And if I’m honest it goes back even further to 2007 when at the invite of Vicky Featherstone and John Tiffany (whatever happened to them?) I made a show for the National Theatre of Scotland called The Recovery Position. This was a headlong dive into the world of freak accidents and trips to A&E. Less Holby the Musical, more 24hrs in A&Edirected by Christopher Nolan. 

And if I’m really honest it goes back even further – not that I make the same show all the time but it does follow a thematic vein that like a never ending underground cave system, seems to demand continuous exploration from me and perhaps of me.

So in 2010 I was given a very generous opportunity by Alan and fortunately I did have something I wanted to do and that was to look deep into the mysterious world of free-diving. Free-diving is an assortment of competitive sports that require a person either to descend as far as they can underwater on a single breath – with the current depth record an astonishing 214 metres. Or the separate discipline of Static Apnea which is basically how long a human being can hold their breath underwater. And wait for this one but that is currently held by a man, surely more dolphin, at twenty two minutes and twenty two seconds.

A number of things attracted me to this subject matter. One being the purity of an action that required a human to go to the very limits of their existence with the sweetly theatrical ‘single breath’. But what outweighed even this was in order to achieve this super-human physical goal, I sensed that the individual would have to take an even deeper journey into an inner landscape made up of their own strengths, weaknesses, fears and frailties. In essence to look inside to see if they measured up and if not, face the consequences. In the spirit of research and at great personal risk, I got stuck in straight away by taking a deep breath and sticking my face into a sink full of tepid water. Then having encountered the mammalian reflex (seriously, look it up, it’s a good one), I tried to imagine the mental control needed when your entire body was screaming for oxygen and you still had at least 3 minutes and a hundred and fifty metres of water on top of you before that would be possible. Or in my case ten more brutal seconds as my long suffering partner wondered when she could get into the bathroom to brush her teeth. And so in this lukewarm crucible, an idea was born.

I have a background in fine art and although continuing as a way of thinking, this pretty much stopped physically when I chose contemporary dance as my new best friend at the age of 18. But around 2010 I started to rediscover the urge and the need to use this grounding as a means of communicating the germ of an idea. And so before anything else I drew some very rudimentary illustrations with white chalk on a blackboard. This made up some projection sequences I imagined on a large vertical surface to which I added a female action figure I bought from Toys Are Us (“no, it’s for a nephew…”) to create the world of a live aerial performer set against projected film and animation. As you can see from the originals and their development, I told a very simple story in a basic set of frames. It’s worth noting that my very first experiments into projection and live action began in 1994 but this was before the internet, toilet seat heaters or recording equipment so sadly there is very little record of this work.

If I’m good at anything and that of course is a subjective proposition, it is this combination of projected moving image in relation to live performance. Maybe it’s my choreographic roots but I have a kind of sense in what to do to amplify one or the other or how to use them in combination to accelerate motion or ramp up emotion. It’s now quite rare to see a new piece of theatre that doesn’t use projection in one way or another – often more as a glorified lighting effect or as set replacement therapy. But for me it is and always has been a kind of Hadron Collider of the heart – with the two separate forms meeting head on in a kinetic explosion of motion and emotion

Subsequently this visual way of developing an idea has evolved into one of the most satisfying parts of the process for me and has advanced into a 3D extravaganza – see the latest for another of my projects One Giant Leap – a very big outdoor show to celebrate the 50th anniversary of man’s first small step on the moon.

This process has also given me the option to tell a story on purely visual terms when often in the past, words have perhaps made a big idea seem a little smaller. But back to the story… so now with performer/collaborator Alexandra Lexi Harrison on board (a wonderful off-shoot of making a show with Australian aerial company Legs On The Wall, of which she was a core artist, for the Melbourne Commonwealth Games), it was full steam ahead for the first iteration at Warwick Arts Centre as part of their innovative ‘Triggered’ programme. And then with her flights almost booked, Lexi announced (Aussie accent) “Marko, I’m going to have a baby!” And that was wonderful news all round because as ever, luck would have it that another couple of irreplaceable collaborators – Simone Jenkinson and Joseph Traynor of Cuerda Producciones fame – could jump on a plane from Buenos Aires to become performer and AV consultant respectively. We were then joined by my long time music collaborator Nathaniel Reed, rigger to the stars Barnz Munn, Studio AKA animator Dave Prosser and actually rebooking the flights (while I panicked) and doing virtually everything else; unflappable producer Hannah Bruce. It also needs stating that this beginning was gift wrapped in the generous support of Arts Council England.

And so a week in the warm embrace of the main house of Warwick Arts Centre led to the creation of a 20 minute experiment in flying, film and free-diving. We showed it on the night Amy Winehouse died and Anders Breivik slaughtered an island of visionary youth. Not the most auspicious start but after what felt like a bit of a make or break week for me, it did serve to highlight the relative importance of things. Feedback was very positive and after spending many of the previous years working at the mercy of wind and rain outdoors, it was great to be back under a roof with lights in it and a slope with seats that the audience could sit on, i.e. – a nice warm theatre. This is a record of the show:

Excitingly my gut said there was more to this idea than met the eye. I had some images that had scorched themselves onto my retina. A woman sinking through the meniscus of her life… A woman gracefully descending below a surface of reality then sinking deeper, ever deeper into the darkness, a woozy descent through the thermocline… A woman floating further and further away from reality until finally she meets herself. A sinking sleeper. Sleep. Hmm… As artists and particularly as writers we don’t half spend a lot of time not very much writing rubbish and nowhere going very fast without a clue or any understanding or absolutely no insight into the condition human thing really useless you’re banging your head against the wall ever so more so each days.

Apologies. But what does make all this daily feedback of incomprehensible crap bearable is that occasionally you fall through the surface of your own limitations and into a pool of, well, something better. COMA! And you shout it again. COMA! And you run out of, in my case, your shed and go and make a sandwich in celebration. A woman apparently at peace under the heavy blanket of a coma with all this amazing stuff going on below the surface in a place we don’t normally get to see. And your long suffering partner is asking you something and you, like a maniac, hear yourself saying COMA! slightly too loud. A woman drifting away from something terrible… “Haven’t you had a sandwich?” Yes, but this is a celebration sandwich… COMA! And then back to your desk to bang your head against the wall some more. I know, it sounds mad and that’s part of getting an idea. Suddenly jumping on a wild horse and hanging on for dear life while it gives you all it has. I’ll go as far to say the discovery of an idea releases the same chemicals as falling in love. Its dizzying, crazy making and makes you feel alive.

After taking a little time to reflect, I decided the next step was to get some very clever heads together in a room for a week to further explore the themes of the show. This coincided with hugely talented producer (number 2 in a line of 4 and counting) Jon Clarke coming on board. Warwick Arts Centre, Alan and Matt Burman were the generous hosts once more and we spent a productive week looking at design, character and story structure. The time together thrillingly climaxed with a day spent listening in awe to Dr. Nick Crombie – consultant anesthetist and clinical lead for the West Midlands Air Ambulance – as he took us through the latest advances in pre-hospital emergency medicine. Just writing those words still gives me a thrill. I know, imagine living with me.

My day job at this point – the creation and direction of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games Closing Ceremony – understandably then took prominence for the next 18 months. But after I was able to return to Out Of This World in the best way possible by travelling to Buenos Aries to Jo and Simone’s amazing rehearsal space. We spent 3 weeks in their purpose built aerial studio working with the cream of the Argentinian aerial performance world alongside Brigid McCarthy and Jen Patterson experimenting with dynamic human flight and close proximity, explosive special FX. These are some of the experiments and these are some stills of that time:

I’m lucky, I know. The trip was funded by the Arts Council England Artists International Development Fund to whom I will forever be grateful.

 And so here we are, on the very exciting cliff edge of actually, really making this thing. And as with all projects, once you step off the edge, you hope the show grows some wings before you hit the ground. This reality also comes with a strong feeling of responsibility to the ideas, those who have worked so hard to get it to this point and the joyous bunch who will now bust a gut to get it done. I couldn’t be happier with the team or more prepared. A question (and believe me, I know you can be under prepared) but can you be over prepared?

Confession time. For the first 15 years of my career making some very successful shows, I didn’t have the first clue or insight into how I’d made these shows. I feel no guilt because I knew no better but I would literally arrive on the first day of rehearsal with a few scribbled ideas in a notebook and a couple of starting points. Possibly beginners luck but we did make some good work. But around the turn of the century and with my passions moving towards theatre and words as opposed to dance and movement, I resolved to do everything humanly possible to prepare by leaving no stone unturned. But being too prepared or doing too much also runs the risk of trying to force something when really you should be trying your best to get out of the way of and not impede a good idea.

The paradox is always to find a way of not working hard at the thing you need to really work hard at; to write like it means nothing when it means everything to you. To try to not think about the thing you need to really think about! It’s not so easy. But what I’ve learnt is if you can do this for a tiny slither of the time you are working, if you are lucky, get enough of a look at your quarry to keep the hunt alive.

From shed to show. From the tyranny of the blank page to hopefully the satisfaction of a touring production. Something from nothing – like a magic trick. But now we know: not magic at all but eternal vigilance and micro tenacity – just keep doing stuff. Work, work, work! To misquote Picasso slightly – inspiration does exist but it has to find you busy. Keep hunting, keep moving, keep listening in the hope the next trap door will open and swallow you up and you’ll free fall into a new world and a new story. But you’re always falling into yourself and as such and as mentioned earlier, always into a thematic seam that I’ve no way of not exploring. I think at the heart of all of my ideas is a deep desire to piece what is broken back together in order to understand why it broke in the first place. To effectively go back in time upstream to the source to reconstruct in the hope of a better outcome. Resurrection perhaps. Maybe I should have been an air accident investigator instead – I’m sure the hours would have been more sociable.

As I write this I realise the show is as much about the act of creation as it is anything else. From shed to show with all the guts and glory in between. If I’m honest, I’m terrified. If I’m equally honest, I can’t wait.