Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Interview with Andrew Morrish 10/3/2003


Old interview, but some beautiful wandering thoughts on performance and politics, conducted in the comfortable environs of the Rose of Australia Hotel in Erskineville as the rain poured down outside. This was supposed to be research for my thesis, but never made it in anywhere in the end. I love this conversation, and miss Andrew working in Australia - he was a continuing inspiration.

AM: what can I help you with David?

DW: I just wanted to have a brief conversation with you about improvisation, because I’m very interested in ummm improvisation, obviously, and you, Andrew Morrish are the guru of improvisation…

AM: Scheisser.

DW: No pressure.

AM: No pressure. No we gurus don’t feel pressure. That’s how you know guru, ‘cos you say ‘oh you’re a guru’ and they say ‘sure’ they don’t say, maybe?

DW: The thing that I’m interested in at the moment, well there’s a couple of things – your description of the ‘Rushing for the Sloth’ [a monthly improvised performance event in Sydney] as an engagement with openness and presence and I’m very interested in those notions, but in the last couple of weeks I’ve become very interested in the notion of uncertainty, and the radical uncertainty of improvisation. What is a radical performance act now, and I’m starting to think sort of well it one that’s undecidable, that’s uncertain, that’s in a real state of flux that can’t be easily reduced to ‘well this is what its all about’.

AM: In a real way, the potential for that lies in any form, I don’t reckon its necessarily more likely to happen in improvisation than anywhere else, because there’s always a certain discrepancy between what you think you are doing and what other people think you are doing, as a performer anyway. There’s always that. So there’s always a degree of uncertainty and when I think about that in improvisation… I don’t think… as you know I promote the idea of self deception as a fundamental aspect of training really, so I certainly imagine I know exactly what I’m doing when I’m performing. I live in the world of certainty in that sense, even though I’m not certain what material might come, but on a moment-to-moment basis I’m always trying to be as certain as I can. So this is really a position of self-deception in a way – you create one idea so that another can emerge. There’s this idea that I use that is the idea that the improvisational moment is like the totem animal of a primitive tribe, its a little deer. If you direct too much attention to the deer, it’s never going to come anywhere near you. You actually have to get on with something else and the deer might get curious and come close. But the minute you go ‘hello deer!’ it runs away again. So it feels like that too, you have to distract yourself with certainties so the possibility of maybe something which is not totally known or controlled can emerge. I think that does emerge from a state of absolute confidence that everything is ok, for me anyway in my experience of it. I think these things interact in really interesting ways. I think you do have to convince yourself of…I’m sorry, not you, there’s no you… I convince myself that I know exactly what I’m doing. That means I don’t need to put any energy into planning my material. So sure, I don’t plan my material, but in the act of improvising…. I’m pretty much feeling very confident.

One of the hardest things to perform is indifference, because how can you be fully committed to presenting the idea that you’re indifferent? And it’s a bit the same with uncertainty which is if you going saying ‘I must be uncertain’ then what does that mean? At one level I could say ‘are you sure you want to be uncertain’? And you go ‘YES, I’m sure I want to be uncertain’

DW: And therefore you are certain…

AM: And the consciousness of going in going ‘I will be uncertain’ will produce a certain kind of material, so it almost seems its one of things that best achieved by not directing yourself at it, its actually you distract yourself towards another place. And I find myself teaching that; I’m continually telling people exactly what I want them to do. In my classes people have the experience that they are always completely certain about what my expectations are, and the tasks are completely concrete – I want you to do THIS. I just don’t tell them what the material is, I don’t tell them what the content is, I don’t tell them what to do it about. And so most people go I’m completely certain this is what I’m supposed to be doing. So I do think there’s a level of distraction in improvisation for me the idea of distracting myself is an important one. And another one is trying to overwhelming myself, trying to do too much is another great idea; trying to do an impossible combination of ideas that can’t actually be done because I don’t have the skill to do it. What I love about that is that something else happens that’s actually more interesting. So there’s an overloading principle, a distraction principle and these are kind of the ideas….

DW: I am very interested in this idea of the impossible task too, that’s a really nice one. I do remember you talking about it once; I think was after an impro that I did for one of the Sloths… maybe it was a Taming [the Sloth - a training session]. You told me that what I did was impossible. I think it was trying to pick myself up through the air…

AM: That’s right, yes. I remember once, it happened to be a German student…

DW: Because everything’s German at the moment…

AM: It’s a bit thematic, everything European… So I said: ‘Speak convincingly in Spanish’ to this German woman as an improvisational score, and she just looked at me and said, ‘I can’t do that.’ And I said, ‘Why not?’ And she said, ‘Because I can’t speak Spanish’, and I said ‘Well neither can we’. I don’t actually imagine that you will be able to magically speak Spanish, what I wanted was for you to be so committed to the act of trying something that’s vaguely like Spanish, that something much more wonderful might come into that space as you attempt to do something that’s actually not possible. So its very close to that self deception principle; its to give yourself something that’s not possible to do, but do it with all the goodwill you could imagine, and if you like, at a complete level of certainty and confidence that you’re doing it, even though you know you’re not, if you want to. So in a way, there’s a first level of talking about improvisation, but I do think you do get very quickly to a level where the conversation becomes about notions of paradox and all the philosophical sophistication that arises from that, that very quickly, once you’ve kind of done the first principles of what improvisation is, you end up, especially I find this as a teacher, but I’ve also found this as a performer, that you’re talking in paradoxical terms, and immediately I go this is a more interesting place to be. But at any one moment within the paradox, I am completely certain of one of the contradictory elements of a paradox, so its not like I go…I don’t think a response to that is the dithery position. You need to be completely certain about the choice, but you know you could have made any other choice and it would be equally as good as long as you were equally committed to it. Dithering I try and not encourage. This is why if you take uncertainty as a score, it’s a bit like performing indifference. It could lead to you becoming, working in a dithering mode, of the audience going – he is not certain. Which I don’t think that is this uncertainty that you’re talking about is about. It’s not an attitude of going…

DW: …I don’t know what I’m doing

AM: And I just think that finding language that points at those particularities of meaning is kind of quite important.

DW: I guess where I’m heading with this idea of radical uncertainty, as a principle not necessarily of a mode of performing – I’m not performing indifference, I’m not performing uncertainty – its just that the work…OK, this is two examples of what I’ve been working with and have been talking with another colleague with… we’re on the bus, and we’re talking about three different performances, classics from different areas. One is Don Giovanni, the Mozart opera verses Cosi Fan Tutte, another Mozart opera, and the reason why Don G is OK, because all of these morally very shaky things go on in that opera…and I’m not valorising opera as an art form here, I’m just talking about things in that…the moral universe becomes uncertain. Why are we enjoying this man doing horrible things? But it’s OK, because in the end, certainty is restored, you know, he goes to hell, he’s taken to Hell, he goes to Hell, and he is judged, and made to pay. So that’s why Don Giovanni is OK. It’s certain in its moral and ethical convictions, it’s certain. And we can feel that our principles have been reinforced, in the way that you were saying in the last Sloth that I’m glad there’s a crisis so I can feel righteous again. Because I was uncertain, and now I’m…

AM:…I’ve got something else to be certain and righteous about…

DW: Because I know I’m right…

AM: …On this one.

DW: On this one.

AM: Absolutely. It’s very clear.

DW: The thing I liked about the implication of that statement is that you’re not just saying that ‘I think I’m right about the war’, you’re saying ‘it makes me feel right about everything. The great crisis of the left is that Communism has proved to be a completely and utterly totalitarian system, an impossible task to make the liberation…it didn’t work in practice. That doesn’t mean that it can’t work in practice, but the fact that it didn’t is such a, you know, a pulling of the rug, the rug of certainty, out from…

AM: There’s still plenty of communist local governments in France. And you can go there and get, well not free, but very cheap lunches for the community every day…So, yeah. Sorry, I’ve interrupted your flow about certainty and uncertainty…

DW: No, no, no, I was just sort of raving really.

AM: Certainly. It’s interesting really, the other part of the self-deception it’s… is like, you know, having spent twenty years trying to be a good improviser, and now feeling like I am a good improviser, and then going, well, what do I have to say? That question hasn’t come up so often as I’ve worked through this other form of self-deception called becoming a good improviser. But know I find myself drawn to making statements at certain times. You know, going what is the purpose of what I do? And, like you’re kind of alluding to in a way, I think there is a kind of a, I wouldn’t call it radical, but certainly a subversive element to choosing to perform improvisation in the way that I do, so that feels like, I guess, a consistent message, which is – what are those other people doing with all that time? You know, if I can whip up this piece of theatre for you right now, in a way that seems to enliven all of us for the next twenty minutes, what are all those other wankers spending their time doing? That’s hopefully a question I would like to think of occasionally. So there’s that, there’s kind of the politics of choosing improvisation as an act, as a message, but I’m also at a point now where I’m asking, …the Maxwell Smart position- do I use it for good or for evil? I’ve noticed, in my longer pieces over the last two years, a tendency towards a moralising kind of content, content about a moral stance, in different ways, and this troubles me enormously. Because when it happens, you go: I am old enough and mature enough to know that my views aren’t that special that I deserve the forum to express to people my political views. It’s not the contract really. And just like there was a time where I wanted to tell coherent stories in improvisation, and I’m going hang on, sit down and write it and have respect for the form. And surely improvisation points at the possibility of a less conventional form being more interesting, and if you’re going to do a more conventional form, then do it properly. So I have this question about this moral and ethical kind of element that coming into my work; at a certain point I feel smug about it, or I feel pretentious, and I go, really, if you want to talk about those things, you should be writing about those things. There are better forms for that. So, this trend is of concern to me. I wouldn’t say that I worry about it, but its of interest to me that its coming, and nearly always I have that moment of making the statement and then within the piece questioning my right to have done that.

DW: Which is actually the thing that interests me about improvisation as being something being uncertain, in that sort of, moral ethical sense, because, for instance, I’m talking about, just because it’s the most recent performance of yours that I’ve seen, you had a few rants, some of which were completely ridiculous. Actually all of which I hope were completely ridiculous…your dark German phase, should we say? But what you do really, through improvising is that you question what is OK? I can say whatever I like, because there is a contract here between me the improviser and you the audience, and I’m going to ask lots of questions. About myself, about my own material, with a commitment to openness, with a commitment to engagement, …

AM: I had this moment in the last season of Gosh!, which I have three of the shows on video, and I hated that season myself, as a performer, and it took me a long time to watch the videos, but there’s one moment in one of them where I go, on this issue – I seem to have started picking on minorities. Convenient ones, you know, asthmatics. The night Robyn Archer was there I started picking on asthmatics. And I said, hang on, I’m the biggest minority out here. Because in a way I do feel there’s an underlying reassurance for me at an ethical level, which is what I’m actually doing is not convincing people of my view, what I’m actually doing is exposing my prejudices. And in the end I think whatever it is I say, if it reflects upon anyone, it reflects upon me. And people go away and think, there’s a guy who hates asthmatics. They might say that. But what they’ll probably think is that there’s a guy who’ll say anything to get a laugh, and that’s closer to the truth anyway. So whenever I do that kind of material there’s often that edge of rant in it, and I don’t actually feel like I’m being persuasive; I actually feel like all I’m doing is exposing an aspect of myself and also sometimes daring myself to say things that I don’t even believe, just as a challenge, as a performers challenge, go can I get away with saying this, will I go too far and alienate the audience? So its all quite local in the end, all of that.

DW: Its interesting - how can I go without alienating the audience – so much of your stage persona is love me, love me, here I am, love me! Here I am, I’m your best friend!

AM: And you’re my best friend, and where will we go tonight? And things like that…you know, and it’s the same as…I like a bit of lemon juice in the meal every now and then, and I do like it to go – he can’t say that! When I performed in Berlin I did this thing, I started doing this thing about dead German choreographers, of which I know about three, so it was a little bit short…I had to stick in a little bit of Isadora Duncan, just to help, and that was all good. And then I started saying, I’m not going to talk about Sascha Waltz, because she’s alive, and I sill want a career, you know. And I said to the audience: do you think its good that I’m just picking on dead people. And they said: no, it’s not good. And I could see every single German going: no that is not good. And just a few minutes ago we were all laughing, and that was not good. So there is always a moral uncertainty to every certainty. If you would. Certainly I have it. Certainly whenever I put out a statement of my own value I go, what’s on the other side of that? What is on the other side of that? I did a piece with Tony the other week when I was kind of accusing the audience of being gratified with my ability to play in the worms…of my own material. And I said to myself: look, Andrew, of all the people you know, you’re probably the one who has the most positive regard for the audience, and actually what you just said is quite cynical about an audience. And so in the piece I went into the whole idea of disdain for the audience as a persona that I never usually feel. But whatever it is it seems to me…and I’m not Jungian in any way, but whatever it is in any way, there’s always another side. There’s always a dark side to every light side and vice versa, and I’m very interested in getting lost between those two things. There’s something I wanted to say about…you’re talking about certainty and uncertainty but there’s also this thing…a relation, a shift I’ve had in my own understanding of the world that I’ve really only had in the last five years is this relationship between knowing and not-knowing. Which is kind of close to this idea, and as someone trained to be an educator, a primary school educator, I thought education was about things I was certain of, things I knew. Because I was teaching basically, things I knew. How to spell, how to count and all of that sort of stuff. But I’ve changed my model through teaching improvisation. Maybe what education’s about is creating a situation where people can stand to look into…stand on what they know to look into the dark space of something they don’t know, and that education’s actually supporting people in that place, and that learning is actually about what you don’t know instead of the way I was brought up and educated, which is about what you do know. And I think that’s something, in the conversation that we’ve had about the nature of improvisational performing. I can make a list of all the things that I do know, when I perform, all the things about which I am certain, and their role is to help me face the things I don’t know. And so I’m actually right in that, looking to support myself in the space between knowing and not-knowing. But, like a lot of these things, I don’t actually think you can be there without having both present. You can’t be unskilled. To be an improviser, its about uncertainty, but you bring your skills and experience to that place. You can’t be in the uncertain place without having some certainty to support you to be there. If you like, it’s equating trust and risk, the intimate relationship between those two things. Like you can’t take a risk unless you know you can stand up and you’ll be ok or whatever it is. And it’s right in that zone. So it’s about both of the things, it’s not about one or the other.

DW: Excellent. That’s fantastic.

AM: Openness and presence? C’mon, you got time? You haven’t? You haven’t. You haven’t got time for openness and presence.

DW: Well, I always have time for those kinds of things, but I have to go to a soccer game right now.

AM: It’s been called off, give me a break!

DW: It’s indoors, unfortunately.

AM: The roof’s leaking. Well OK then, bugger off!

2 comments:

jesus said...

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Matt Prest said...

thanks for posting that up David. a few nice reminders in there.