Theatre PUR, Birbeck College, University of London, 19/6/2006
We're greeted with polite reserve in the foyer of Birbeck College, amid the flow of comings and goings. Our names checked off a clipboard list, we are led past notice boards, down a corridor and into an old-fashioned board or conference room, complete with busts and portraits of past men (all men) of perceived past importance, neatly set into the windows that surround the room. The actors await us sitting and smiling warmly. Once we are all seated amidst their positions, a young girl stands and closes all curtains, shutting off the distractions of the outside world. With everyone seated once again, the formal part of the performance begins.
Formally, the production uses very simple devices – the performers read from cards, turning them over in turn to deliver the next memo. It begins near the entrance door, proceeding clockwise around the table at which the actors and audience sit intermingled. Everyone remains still and seated, looking around the room warmly as if to welcome 'dear all' in each of our manifestations. There is a glorious restraint in the delivery of the mundane directives to 'dear all' – notice of building work that may or may not produce disruption and/or noise, endless variations to daily menus that conspire to all sound the same, increasingly plaintive calls for someone to host HOT TOPICS, and concerns about occupational health and safety. The content is utterly banal, but the frequent absurdity of its detail is by turns amusing and arresting. Micro narratives develop – Diane fails month after month to persuade someone to host HOT TOPICS, finally to give up in despair. Steve struggles to keep on top of the building maintenance, but there seems to be constant repairs required to the heating system. As hard as he tries, he will never be able to make everyone happy here at work. Elsewhere, a colony of mice expands, is culled, and later put up for adoption. Janine struggles to come up with endlessly new combinations for the daily menu. Various laboratory and biological agents are requested by desperate and seemingly disorganised scientists. In its matter-of-fact delivery around a large rectangular conference table, Dear All constantly casts and recasts its audience as an ever shifting community of 'All'. The performers make both reasonable and obscure requests via their simply read memos, as if just making sure that everyone is kept in the loop, kept up to date. It is important to note that the single passenger lift will be shut down for maintenance for three days, as the control panel must be moved.
These simple attempted acts of communication have a culminative effect. Despite being shorn of their context (most seem to refer to the everyday business of a hospital, but it could be any large institution), the memos and requests gently provoke an increasing desire to know the people that are the missing pieces of this puzzle, the embodied remainder of these micro narratives. How did Diane deal with the disappointment of failing to convince anyone to lead anything? Did the vulnerable bike get stolen? Did Steve ever find the problem in the heating, and who froze while he was fixing it? Were the lost mice really found in the lab fridge? Remaining consistently within this pedestrian dimension, Dear All demonstrates the simple desire for communication, for genuine contact, despite the institutional frames through which these simple acts must be mediated. As the piece continues, the performers begin to pass their cards to members of the audience – in this shared space it seems that everyone should have something to say. We all should want to reach out toward 'dear all', to make our own invitations and offerings toward community.
The communications gradually begin to blur into each other, wires crossed in the institutional filter. Slowly, the memos mutate, confusions, distortions, and complications set in. But even in these often hilariously jumbled communication failures, the intimate human need and desire for communication is never lost. In its failure and collapse, this need to reach out is amplified – in the collapse of meaning the desire for meaning becomes ever more urgent, and ever more poignant. Each of us once was and now is one of the 'dear all'; intimately differentiated within a community of listeners, each of us addresses and seeks address in turn, makes an offer to be heard and a reciprocal offer to listen.
In the end, none of the substance of these communicative ghosts matter to us, and yet all of them touch deeply. As might be imagined, dear all, this is a rare feat indeed.