Sunday, 1 April 2007

Launch introduction to “Shatter” by Alaric Sumner et al

Sumner, Alaric et al; Shatter; edited by Lawrence Upton; 16 pp; A5 portrait; March 2007; ISBN 978-1-84254-388-1; £2.00 + £0.80 (p & p for UK)

Shatter is the script for a performance by the group PresentImperfect at the Pleasance in Edinburgh in August 1994 as part of that year’s Fringe: the group made, by my count, twenty one performances. The text is taken from a handout (A4, stapled at the top left-hand corner) apparently available at the performance. Obvious typos have been corrected silently; but otherwise it is unaltered.
It was written by Alaric Sumner with Richard Talbot and others in the group. Talbot’s contributions are shaded in this edition. In the original handout, the typeface changed.
For Sumner, this project came at the end of a period of immense personal aesthetic output, in terms of quantity, which would lead on to what I see as an aesthetic renewal; although saying it like that simplifies the matter far more than is desirable. I need a little more detail.
For the academic year 1993 / 1994, he based himself at the University of Leeds, living in “Sentinel Towers”, where he took a taught M.A. in Theatre Studies. The University had accepted him as a Masters student although he did not have a first degree.
I say that he was based at the University, but his diary and other papers show him going to many concerts, performances and exhibitions in the area in general, as well as visiting London events quite often.
At the end of his course, not only did he write and co-direct his own coursework piece Marks in a landscape, but he provided at least one script for a fellow student; and from that, because it was acknowledged publicly, it seems probable that what he submitted as his coursework was more than was required of him. There are boxes of it.
It seems to me that, during that academic year, his confidence in himself as a writer increased greatly, countering an uncertainty and hesitancy which went back many years.
In the spring of 1994, his Voices (for 9) was produced at Royal Court, as part of Barclays New Stages, but it is worth remembering that Voices (for 9) had been written five or six years before, probably being finished in 1988: the score, as published in 2004 by Writers Forum, had been typeset, after working hours, at his London employers, well before his move to Cornwall.
After that move, , he engaged upon the major endeavour of the diary which lies at the heart of Waves on Porthmeor Beach, still – ridiculously! - out of print, and also made a number of new poems. Some of those poems were published in magazines; and I have salvaged others. However, in the early years of the 1990s, a great deal of his mental energy was directed towards visual arts.
At some point, he set up a studio in St Ives, in his garden, and apparently used it to put himself through a range of graphical experiments and exercises of his own devising, as if he were trying to teach himself technique at high speed – figurative and abstract painting and drawing, collage, engraving, monotyping, linocut.
Some of these exercise pieces were rather accomplished.
The never-finished Plans for the New Architecture, which I now think was started in 1978 approximately, had graphical elements from the beginning and was first prepared for public view as a poster in the early 1980s. A print of that poster was exhibited at the Sumner exhibition at CPT in 2004.
He studied photography in the mid 1980s, partly to increase his range of skills in image-making; and he submitted to the Whitechapel in the late 1980s.
He owned many art books, catalogues and exhibition posters. So the desire to be a graphic artist was always there.
The move to Penwith seems to have increased his commitment to that potential career.
In St Ives, he was taken seriously as a graphic artist by a number of curators; and some of you will remember works from the early 1990s, which had been exhibited then, on show again at CPT in 2004.
As well as that commitment, we may also detect in some statements a great regret for what he saw as time wasted in the past; and that extended in some ways to his perception of his whole life!
He had been an actor of some accomplishment in his last years at school, playing Mosca to acclaim. He was an ASM at Nottingham for a year; but, for whatever reason, nothing came of that directly.
Then he studied at East 16 acting school. He didn’t do very well in terms of assessment, not submitting course work. Not that he was lazy. There are relatively detailed working accounts for various gay organisations and projects for when he was arranging printing of posters; collecting gates; paying people for work completed; and so on. And he worked to get money, but not as an actor, presenting himself as an out-of-work actor both to himself and others. It wasn’t untrue.
It is not surprising that, when he decided to get himself higher education, both for his own mental acuity and for his curriculum vitae, he chose Theatre as his subject.
That experience, which included great encouragement from his tutors, led to the boost in his faith in himself, not just as a dramatist but as a writer in general; so that he felt able to show Voices (for 9). And that is also a considerable tribute to his tutors; anecdotal evidence suggests they thought very highly of him.
And the response to Voices (for 9) increased his self-esteem considerably, and led on to the need to write more for follow ups!
On the other hand, it wasn’t all good news. He had paid for Leeds himself and needed income. In June 1994, he applied unsuccessfully to be a part time lecturer at Dartington College of Arts
While he would have been in Edinburgh, SoHo Theatre rejected him for the job of literary manager; and the central school of speech and drama as a part time lecturer
He applied to be writer in residence in prisons; and arts centres; and theatres; UEA and University College, Galway; to be an assistant in a literary agency; to work in the BBC, reading scripts; and to be a lecturer at King Alfred’s College, University of Huddersfield, University of Stirling; University of Plymouth, Newcastle College, University of Wolverhampton; South Devon College; St Mark and St Johns; South East Essex College, University of Manchester.
He applied to be one of a team of multi-media experts, as well as trying for a training course for the unemployed in computer graphics for television
And so on… He may have been a little worried about his financial future even as he felt better than ever about himself as an artist. And it seems to me that he came to the realistic conclusion that without a better artistic c.v. or more experience as a lecturer, he would render himself unemployable, being seen simultaneously as overqualified and inexperienced for anything he might want to do.
Initially his renewed energy manifested itself in a return to what is now called Conversation in colour, a version of which was known to his peers in Leeds; and the original goes back to the 1980s.
I suggest that all that I have mentioned gave him the resources and enthusiasm to do something with what we know as Waves on Porthmeor Beach, when the blossoming of his friendship with Sandra Blow and the opening of the Tate St Ives’ exhibition Porthmeor Beach: A century of images coincided.
The core of Waves on Porthmeor Beach had been written through 8 months of 1991 ( between 29 January 1991 and 21 October 1991) and hardly needed rewriting; but to that he added a commentary on the diary plus the drawings by Sandra plus his commentary on the drawings.
The book was published in 1995, a bit over a year after the production of Voices (for 9), to be followed a year later by a production of Conversation in colour.
Three accomplished pieces in three years, each piece quite different to the others.
And, after that, it was largely new work: The Unspeakable Rooms, Nekyia, Text out of image, Bucking Curtains and LETTERS for dear AUGUSTINE.
Thus, Shatter is interesting not least for when it happened, as part of a fulcrum of experience of success.
I did not see the performance, being occupied in a very large improvised performance of my ex-partner’s; but Alaric always seemed positive to me about having been in the Edinburgh Fringe, though he never counted the writing itself as an equal achievement to the other writings I have referred to.
PresentImperfect was five people; but only three of them performed in Shatter, leaving the director free to direct and the writer to write, though the other writer, Richard Talbot, did perform; and the actors were encouraged to negotiate what was written… it seems that all of them took part in negotiation of the text, but that the two were designated as responsible for the actual writing!
However it was that he did not go on stage at the Pleasance, it does, I believe, reflect one of the major ways he saw himself. While there may well be other factors of which I am unaware, we can see Alaric defining himself neither as director nor actor but as writer, the writer for the theatre, for others to interpret and produce. That was his role in Voices (for 9) where the offer of production included the services of Roxana Silbert as director. That was the role he seems to have insisted on in The Unspeakable Rooms
He did act in the first performance of Conversation in colour and seemingly relished the task, though ambiguously.
That Shatter was, we are told, created by negotiation might be his creation of the writer as part of a team rather than, for instance, self-expressionist.
In a job application written in the months after Shatter, Sumner spoke of “rewriting during rehearsal” by making “rapid assessments” of what had been written.
He went on to speak of “co-operating with a group to create a dramatic work as well as my own writing” which might be taken to suggest that he saw himself as outside of the group to some extent, and that is readily believable; and it also suggests that he did not quite see the piece as part of his own writing.
One of the techniques he used often is the co-option of material found in others’ writing:
“The reconfigurations in turbulent liquids are similar to the re-patterning of desire in individuals as they recombine in different groupings. This group may approach the Winter Palace dragging a dead horse... that group may converge on Cable Street, carrying bags of marbles to dislodge the fascist-supporting police officers from their mounts... other groups may amass in wasteland outside the boundaries of Warrington Industrial Estate or in the streets of London's East End outside News International's Wapping site, with few symbols, no weapons. Though each of these reconfigurations may fail to produce a through-line of purpose, a resolution into an objective that we may hold on to, does that mean their desires, their aims and their passions are without value? Surely all of us believe that the struggle for our desires is of greater value than the achievement of those desires?”
Shatter wasn’t the first time he had used it by any means, but I think I see him beginning to push the technique in a new direction here, making the narrative line more ambiguous, compared for instance to its use in Voices (for 9).
He also cannibalised his previous unpublished writing. Antje’s speech “I am moving at speed while standing still” was probably written some time before, and was probably unfinished at the time it was incorporated into Shatter.
Quite what happened during the negotiation process, I do not know. My attempts to contact the others have not succeeded. Did the final text arise from discussion with everyone throwing in ideas?
However it may have been, some of the images (e.g. the armchair, and the gravel) are extended elaborately; and ideas are played with wittily:
Antje: I am certain language lies.
Nic: You can’t use language to make things certain

At the same time, some of the writing seems quite ragged and unfinished.
If one sees the writing process as an extension of what the five had been doing at University of Leeds, it is also the first surviving kind of some other performance pieces that Sumner would write later, such as error studies and Portraits and also presages his work with Ken Turner’s General Specific.
I think particularly here of Memory without past which General Specific presented at Penzance Arts Club on 18th March 1995 where Rory McDermott incorporated a speech from Sumner’s “Conversation in colour” into his contribution to Turner’s piece. Both error studies and Portraits and Memory without past involve simultaneous performance of heterogeneous plagiarised materials put together by more than one person.
It would be nice to know if Shatter changed at all from performance to performance either in text or choreography.
I think the ambiguous administration of the piece’s development probably prevented it from being more than it is. I am not going to tell you this is a great piece of writing in order to sell it; but it is pretty interesting, especially for those of us interested in this writer over all. Shatter offers insights into Sumner’s working methods; into the development of his career and enthusiasm within it; and, potentially, into collaborative writing experimentation in general. It is fascinating seen against Waves… and Voices… and I admire the imaginative courage with which he tried repeatedly to head off in a new direction rather than trying to reproduce methods that had already succeeded

[The making of Waves on Porthmeor Beach and the place of the diary within it are analysed in my paper “Some initial responses, after 10 years reading, to Waves on Porthmeor Beach by Alaric Sumner” being published in two parts by Pores magazine

Copyright (c) Lawrence Upton 2007,
Writers Forum Workshop 31st March 2007

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