Friday, August 22, 2014

Toilets and Tattoos...

I would never...would I?

I do not consider myself toilet obsessed. Nor do I have a particularly scatalogical sense of humour. I do like to push my own boundaries, and do things I haven't done before. I like to take risks, of a certain kind. And I hate taking risks that make me feel truly uncomfortable or unsafe.

If I ever make the following bold statement: "I would never...", or worse yet, "I am not a person who..." I immediately set to asking myself why not? And as I ask myself, "why not", the idea can grow upon me, becoming strangely appealing. So it was with tattoos. 

In the early 90's, I was living in London....

Only skin heads or punks had tattoos! I said aloud to someone, "I would never get a tattoo." Then I thought, "I am not a person that anyone would imagine would have a tattoo." (How things have changed...both personally and socially)!

I am vain... that I fancy myself a little different.  I enjoy being perceived as surprising or complex. Have I attempted to overcome my discomfort in feeling different by turning difference into a virtue? Do we feel odd and then make ourselves odder? 

If I was not a person whom others would suspect of being tattooed, perhaps it was time to get one.


Thus in answering the "why not?" the idea of actually doing so, began to take hold in my mind. And how it would shock my year at drama school! Did I want to shock my year? I don't think I did.  It was an odd thing to do at the time.

I'm in my 3rd year, preparing to find an agent, go out into the wild world of theatre (the pigeon-holing world of theatre in the 90's...).  I suspect they were less shocked and more pitying at my apparent lack of sense. 

So there's me: female, not an ingenue even when I was the right age for it, a decade or more after the time when actors in the UK could possibly ignore the stereotyping of TV without being imperiled - where are the Fiona Shaw's or Juliet Stevenson's of my generation?* - contemplating a tattoo!  Actors are meant to be blank, yet attractive canvases (which to my mind is contradictory). And worse yet, I cut my hair. Short hair doesn't suit me.

One may well ask if I was afraid of being successful...

Thus I found myself at the Kensington Market on the weekend, holding the hand of a close friend. There's something in this: that I should be accompanied to get my tattoo by a black- belt in Aikido (a fight director), while a racist skin head (smoking a spliff) injected ink into my arm. It was painful. And he didn't share the spliff. It was not our intention to do business with a racist. The racism only became clear whilst I was lying there having my tattoo applied for a significant number of pounds sterling. It added an entire dimension to this experience; negative and ironic.

You can imagine how I 'kicked' myself when on one of my yearly visits to the San Francisco Bay Area I walked by the dynamic tattoo parlours of North Beach - tattooing as an art had already taken hold - years ahead of London. I'd missed my opportunity to get a tatt of rare quality, to be worked on by an 'Artiste'.


So of course, when I saw a toilet on a wheeled platform on the stage where I was rehearsing, I naturally told myself, I 'would never' sit on a toilet onstage. Within five minutes, I found myself considering the potential of the toilet as a focal piece - it seemed daring to me (vanity again)! Having already begun writing a text about the transatlantic differences between public toilets in the UK versus the US: "Puritans fled to America's shores and built toilets with gappy doors..."...enter the toilet!

Not really that daring after all - as I actually thought I would just sit on it with the lid closed...and what?  Well, you know...just sort of chat to myself.  Yes, really!  Until a director friend broke through the walls of my denial, reminding me that one can't really have a toilet onstage and not attempt to use it in the expected manner.  Something akin to 'you can't stand that close to another actor without hitting or kissing her/him...'

(Though I disagree with this as a fixed principal;  I think there are many ways to use proximity to invite the audience into experiencing an exciting tension.  How electrifying, to stand that close to a person, without touching...)

I have never considered actually going to the loo in front of an audience. In "Possession" I explore the surreal and the real in equal measure, but I'm not interested in enacting art focused on bodily fluids.  While I like to make my audiences feel a little uncomfortable it's not intended that I disgust them, or cause them to feel disrespected. What I like to do is to tap into visceral memory.

In "Possession", two characters converse with each other from within the same body. Of these two characters, one is fully aware of the audience. She wouldn't ever appear on a toilet in front of them by choice. The other character has suspended her disbelief so effectively, she believes that they are entirely alone, in a private bathroom stall. It is she who insists that they sit on the loo. Staying on the toilet requires the first character to find a way to pass the time while remaining, at least temporarily in an agonizingly embarrassing position.  Due to the challenges of bringing this show to the United Solo Festival when I don't live in New York, the prop that was once a toilet is now a chair with a toilet seat cover - no danger of the audience being distracted by fear of actual fluids.

Lest this prop sound like a poor second to the toilet on wheels, "That's not a loo, it's a chair" has become part of the action, underlying and clarifying the very different perceptions of these two characters. "Possession" seeks to turn the 'bathroom mirror' towards the audience, holding the dual reality they are experiencing:  in which something one knows is a chair can also equally be, a toilet.

(My tattoo however, is just what it appears to be...)

*Actors of my generation that do come to mind are Tanya Moodie and Thusitha Jayusandra, Nicola Walker, Amanda Abbingdon. And others I'm neglecting to mention... Styles of acting have changed, of course, but the fact that to my knowledge these 4 actors took a longer time to come to the fore shows how the landscape has changed in the UK. It's the Kiera Knightly's of this world who achieve prominence early in their careers.