“…that was fascinating, having a process where I feel I really met those actors and that creative team and really shared something with them. But I’ve never met them in real life.”
The Coronavirus pandemic has clearly thrown up barriers to our ability to gather physically together, one key condition that can facilitate the connective tissue of belonging. But in the face of our need, have we found workarounds to those barriers? Of course. In the following conversation, you’ll hear from two working artists—Sinéad Rushe, award-winning Irish director and Senior Lecturer in Acting and Movement at the Central School of Speech and Drama, London, and Margaret Laurena Kemp, multi-disciplinary performing artist and Associate Professor of Theatre & Dance at UC Davis. To learn more about AntigoneNOW, please visit www.sineadrushe.co.uk/productions/antigone-now/ Find Rushe and Kemp’s contact information at the end of the transcript below. This interview was recorded using Zoom.
Transcript for Connective Tissue
Allison Schuette: Hi, Allison, here, one of the co-directors of the Welcome Project. If you’ve listened to our stories, you know that we have an abiding interest in when and how we belong to families, to neighborhoods, to communities. The Coronavirus pandemic has clearly thrown up barriers to our ability to gather physically together, one key condition that can facilitate the connective tissue of belonging. But in the face of our need, have we found workarounds to those barriers? Of course. In the following conversation, you’ll hear from two working artists—Sinéad Rushe, award-winning Irish director and Senior Lecturer in Acting and Movement at the Central School of Speech and Drama, London, and Margaret Laurena Kemp, multi-disciplinary performing artist and Associate Professor of Theatre & Dance at UC Davis—each of whom forged strong bonds to family and culture in the midst of active conflict in their neighborhoods and cities growing up. That tenacity served them well as artists when the announcement of the pandemic last year forced them to reconceive their production of the play, Antigone. In the following conversation, you’ll learn a little about their artistic decisions, which resulted in a 20-minute digital performance, AntigoneNOW, but you’ll learn even more about how the collaborative ensemble process fostered connections that allowed students and faculty and visiting artists to belong to one another in spite of vast geographical distances.
Margaret Laurena Kemp: Hi, I’m Margaret Laurena Kemp in Sacramento, California.
Sinéad Rushe: Hello, I’m Sinéad Rushe in London, England.
MLK: It is January 12th, 2021. I grew up in Dorchester, Massachusetts. It’s right in the City of Boston. My family was the second African American—Afro-Caribbean family to move on our street. And it was formerly a Jewish neighborhood and it was one of those neighborhoods in Boston where white flight was quite prevalent as a practice. Many homes and, like, whole streets of homes were burned down by the former residents rather than to sell the property to black people.
But you know, Boston (maybe you don’t know) is very famous for these fires, and there were lots of people who liked to go and just, like, enjoy watching houses burn down, and they were called Firestarters, it was, like, their happy name. Arthur Fiedler, the famed conductor of the Boston Pops, was a person that liked to do that. Even had a little fire hat that he would wear to those events.
I saw homes burned down. We didn’t talk about it, but it was very scary and to this day I’m sort of haunted by nightmares of house fires.
The year that my family moved into the house, they bought it mainly because I was being born. My father started a home owners’ association. And interestingly, a part of that homeowners’ association was an annual gathering. It’s really—it’s a block party but it is an annual gathering, and this is the first year of the COVID that it hasn’t taken place.
Belonging is a lot related to—I guess—home because I’ve never—I never move. We’ve always lived in that same house. I do associate it, I think, more strongly with ancestral home and culture because my neighborhood is very strongly an Afro-Caribbean neighborhood. Actually, there’s a lot of African American foods I have never tasted and don’t know how to cook. And people always, “You don’t know how to cook that?” I’m like, “No, I don’t.” So, um, the one thing that kind of spilled over from African American communities into our community was social dance.
We would have parties practically every weekend where we would play records and my mother and father took dance lessons so they knew ballroom and all these different styles of dancing. I took dance classes when I was a child. When I was in kindergarten, the first thing that my friends and I would do would do some dances. Like “Show me some moves!” And then we, like, all moved together. Like, ok! We got a little dance on for fifteen minutes and ok, now we can—we can get the school day started. I remember my best friend in junior high would call me up. “Come on over. I’ll teach you this new dance.” Everything was really related to this idea of moving together.
I recently had a reading of a play, and after the reading of the play, I asked the people what the play was about and they said it was about poor black people living in the ghetto. And I said to the people, “Where in the text does it say that? It says it’s holiday time, people are putting up Christmas lights. It says people are playing records. People are dancing. People are eating. They’re inside the house. Where does it say they’re poor? They never mention mortgages not being paid or lights being cut off, right?” Yes, they’re black. But no other part of their humanity could be seen beyond the color of their skin. And it really made me—made me sad. It’s really sad. I wanted somebody to see the humanity and the grace that I grew up in. And what my parents gave to me.
SR: Well it’s very interesting to describe where I came from and where I grew up in relation to hearing Margaret because there are two resonant themes, I guess, around a place of conflict and this idea of social dance. I grew up in a small town called Newry, County Down in Northern Ireland. And I grew up in the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and it was a very charged and difficult time and a very difficult place to grow up. It was a war zone, effectively. Newry, my town is a Nationalist town so in the conflict it’s on the Catholic side, not the Protestant side. And so we, the town, was occupied by the British Army. And that meant that there was a checkpoint at every entrance and exit point from the town. There were various army checkpoints within the town and that the streets and the pavements were lined with British Army soldiers in their full fatigues with sniper guns leaning behind sandbags. So of course this became completely normal. We went to school and just walked past the military, leaning on the sandbags, and slightly stepped over them on our way to school. It was a matter of course we would have to wait in a traffic line for half an hour, forty minutes while the military asked us to get out of our cars.
And I remember all five of us being in the car and my mum challenging the soldiers and basically saying, “You think I’ve got nothing better to do than—I’ve got five kids in the back, and my boot’s full of shopping. I’ve got to get them home. I’ve got to make their tea. Do you think I’ve got nothing better to do than answer your questions about where I’m going and where I’m coming from?” She’d be, like, “Where do you think I’m going? Where do you think I’m coming from?” And sometimes my mum would engage the soldiers in a conversation about the conflict. And when I think of it now it was really quite bold, but often the soldiers were very, very young. They were, like, seventeen, eighteen. And of course they had no concept of where they were and why they were there. And so my mum would engage them with…she would say, “What age are you?” And, “Where are you from?” And, “What do you know about here?” And it was just mortifying for them and mortifying for us, that pathetic thing of the child wanting to conform and not feeling the same as everyone else, not feeling like your mum or your parents are sticking their head above the parapet or being different or difficult.
Of course I don’t think that now. I look back with tremendous pride at the fearlessness of my parents in that situation because my dad was a greengrocer and a fishmonger. He delivered vegetables to people’s houses. So we often had to go into areas that were very strongly pro-IRA areas. The Irish Republican Army, which were the military wing of Sinn Féin and who were fighting for independence and were fighting for the retreat of the British Army. So my dad was often driving into those areas and he sometimes was apprehended. There were often highjackings where they would try to take shopkeepers’ vans or goods to help them in their cause, if you like. And my dad has told several stories over the years about challenging people or standing up. And standing up also to the British Army because often they would want to buy things directly from him and he would say, “I cannot serve you. I will be seen as someone who’s in cahoots with the British Army and it puts myself, my family, my livelihood at risk.” Often the British Army would try to exert their will over that and not really accept it, and my dad often challenged them on that. And of course in retrospect I have a sense of their integrity, their political standpoint. They weren’t pro-violence, they weren’t pro-IRA in any way, but they were Nationalists, my family, and they did not believe in the occupation of the British in our town and in Northern Ireland.
And I think one thing to say about Northern Ireland and my town is that it is incredibly rich culturally. People working at a very high level as musicians, as dancers, as performance-makers. And so I feel I really grew up in this small town that actually was a hub of creativity. There was something about the vitality and the engagement in that that, I guess, was a profound antidote to the external situation that we were in. Irish dance absolutely defined my childhood. I was very serious about it. I competed. I was like an Irish dance gymnast, really, doing competitions every month. And of course it’s part of the fabric of society there, of coming together, and listening to music, and doing ceili dances—that’s part of a social way of being. I suppose that’s the legacy for me of growing up in Northern Ireland fighting for my own sense of identity that isn’t a cliche or isn’t one that’s imposed on me from the outside. With the presence of the British military or the occupation, there’s a kind of sense that we were always defining ourselves in relation to something else that we didn’t want, or someone else’s view of ourselves. I feel there’s a legacy around the capacity to stand one’s own ground and say, “No, this is who we are. And this is what we stand for. And this is what we can do.”
AS: In listening to Margaret’s and Sinead’s personal experiences, I became interested in the idea that art is less a finished object and more a dynamic unfolding. Not only an unfolding within the artist, but an unfolding that eventually includes the audience, who may or may not be able to complete the work in the way the artist intended. In this second half of our episode, Margaret launches us into this theme of art as a dynamic unfolding. The show she references here is a solo performance she’s created that chronicles watching fires.
MLK: Interestingly—I haven’t thought of this in a long time—but I started thinking about the possibility for that show when I was in Ireland. And I say “interestingly” because I think that’s where Sinéad and I met. I don’t remember that artist who had the guitar, but he sang and he just told this story so simply, and there was a fire in that story. And it reminded me of my own story. So that was kind of this seed that made me think, “Oh, maybe there’s something there.” That person’s work sort of had three layers. They shared it on that night, and we were all there, and it was really wonderful, and we had this conversation. And then I took it back with me into my community but through my body experience of their story. And in many respects I started having a conversation with that artist.
SR: Yeah, a spark often begins outside of ourselves. It kindles something inside and then we hope to put it back out in the process of making. We come back to the audience and again, that’s—that we hope to ignite a spark in them, in their being, about their lives or about society, or about humanity, or making the world a little bit more reflective or considered, or ethical. I also go to see live work because that’s where connection is and I feel when I go as an audience member, I’m also looking for a sensation of feeling completely alert and present. And in that state, I’m really listening and paying attention. And through that state of alertness, I find connection with the subject, with the actors onstage, and with my fellow audience members—if it’s successful, there’s another event of communion that happens in their performance.
MLK: When we started working on AntigoneNOW, that was one of the things, again, going back to that idea of gathering, that came forward was this sensation of the breaking of that opportunity to gather—by decree!
SR: Yeah, Margaret invited me last year to come to UC Davis as the Granada Artist-in-Residence to work on a production together. And we decided that we would do Antigone, and it was going to be a stage production. But right before I was due to go, COVID hit. We all went into lockdown; the borders closed. And Margaret and I started to reimagine how we could still create something even though I was on the other side of the world.
MLK: I was very concerned for the project to be canceled. For Sinéad, for the students. The one thing in my class: students always have to finish everything. It can be awful. And I just thought, “That’s the only thing I teach is you got to finish! So we have to do it. And we have to finish it.”
SR: For me it was very concrete. The beginning it was, “Oh my God I’m going to lose this job.” I had a kind of terror. In a freelance career it’s too late two weeks before a three month block. It’s too late for something else to emerge. So it was very strong, Margaret’s catching of that moment to reconfigure it together so that we could offer a plausible alternative.
When Margaret spoke to me about Antigone I thought, “Yes, this could be very interesting to have a sense of Antigone’s grief in an ensemble of actors”—what I call polyphonic characterization. I had explored it with Iago in Othello where the force of Iago was so big he was like an organism and so he couldn’t actually be contained in one body. So we began to explore this idea of what is this grief, or this outrage, or this sense of injustice that is so big that it can’t quite be contained? And so we began to explore displacing the notion of the traditional Greek chorus which is representative of the civic voice of the community, if you like. There was a natural evolution that happened as we began to strip away the text because we had to make something much sparser in a digital format.
MLK: I always think of art as a problem, so I was like, “Oh, how are you going to solve it?” And I had done a durational performance. People were invited to use their digital devices to document it. And then I’d ask them to send that documentation to me, so I just said, “We could do that.”
SR: And I think in the process of us honing back the script of the play to the character of Antigone only and to her experience of injustice and grief. It’s suddenly then that image of her, the body of her brother lying out in the dust being eaten by the birds and being denied funeral rites. And her action is to defy the state and bury it anyway. In the light of the pandemic, somehow the whole project just began to hone in on that image and that action was just uncannily resonant in this moment. That not being able to touch that body or be with that body was very strong in the pandemic. And then, of course, this scenario of many, many people not being able to be with their sick relatives in hospital and hold their hand and not be able to gather with their communities to bury their dead relatives—just all of that. It just began to speak, and resonate, and reverberate.
MLK: It seeped in, because it was real. We had students—I remember Zhong, the voice that’s singing in the back. He was here when we started. And I remember him asking for a Zoom conversation with me and tears were just streaming down his face. And he said, “The borders are closing. I have to leave. Or I may never be able to get home.” It was there, you know? It seemed so much more than an illness. I’d never heard anyone say—unless it’s a war—that “the borders are closing and I may never get home.” Zhong lives in Singapore and never missed a rehearsal. Ever. And often they were at two or three o’clock in the morning.
SR: The format of this project in this pandemic allowed the borders to stay open in some way. Really, each week was a new threshold. It was important to both of us to have all of our Antigones and our ensemble coming together at an attempt at unity or synchronicity. Now it’s a failed attempt; we couldn’t make it work. It’s not synchronous, but there’s something about that gesture: let’s all come together in this movement, this form that we’ve all learned and that we all know as a way of connecting with each other. And that was fascinating, having a process where I feel I really met those actors and that creative team and really shared something with them. But I’ve never met them in real life. And I don’t know if I’ll ever meet them in real life. It’s another border that’s broken down that I couldn’t possibly have conceived before.
There’s something for me in the process of making a show where that—that work in the rehearsal room is about creating an atmosphere of community, and collectivity, and ensemble, and a sense that we as an ensemble are trying to commune around a collective vision. Me, as a director, I basically feel that’s my work, is to cultivate that capacity in the room. I mean, I’m interested in big ideas, and big texts, and form but ultimately how we get there is really about the relations of the people in the room—the work comes out of that.
Allison: Thanks for joining us for this conversation with Margaret and Sinéad. To learn more about AntigoneNOW, please visit www.sineadrushe.co.uk/productions/antigone-now/. There you can also learn more about Sinead and how to contact her. To learn more about Margaret, visit her website at http://www.mlkemp.space/. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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