A love story between two women that spans a hundred years, moves across continents, occurs in a multitude of languages. A story about hope, the distances we travel, and the lengths we might go to when falling in love.
By Belinda Dillon, April 2014.
We’ll Meet in Moscow is a new collaborative project from playwright Natalie McGrath, choreographer Jane Mason and designer/sculptor Sophia Clist; a response to the banning of Gay Pride in Moscow, August 2012, for 100 years. Not only will the project seek to produce a performance piece – a love story – but it is also an exploration of the collaborative process that creates it, and what models of public participation can be accessed (or developed) to inform and shape the work, and/or respond to it.
At this stage the project is very much in R&D – in terms of what the performance will be, how it will be presented and when, but especially in terms of public participation. Might LGBTQ people want to share their stories, to inform the work? Might their love stories be a more central part of the work itself – witnessed in some way, perhaps, or even displayed as part of the ‘set’? What, even, are the right questions to ask? This aspect of the project is about more than just building an audience, of course; it’s about engaging people in the politics, starting conversations that will contribute to the work’s development. Natalie and I discussed early on the possibility of mapping love stories, not only the geographical distances that people have travelled but also the personal journeys they’ve made in order to be themselves within a relationship. Perhaps We’ll Meet in Moscow could also map the LGBTQ experience in Exeter over the last 100 years.
The project is also about everyone involved – an all-female creative team, which also includes Sophie McCormack as digital archivist – being supported and encouraged to develop their practice. For me, it’s an opportunity to develop my critical writing in response to the project, to document the creative process. It feels like a privileged position to be in, to observe from the inside, to see it grow, and to see how three practitioners collaborate, how they devise, converse and make something completely unique together.
I’m interested in how artists from different disciplines approach their work. How different is the creative process for artists more used to doing and moving in a physical space than it is for a writer, which is by necessity (for me, anyway) a more isolated, sedentary endeavour? The search for a common language in order to bring this story to life clearly resonates in terms of exploring ‘love’. Already what’s happening feels satisfyingly layered.
Early conversations around the topic and Natalie’s particular inspiration for wanting to write such a love story produced words and images that began to inform and shape the project in the minds of the artists involved:
- Visibility and invisibility
- Appearing and disappearing
I carried these words with me as we went into the Residency week in March, which saw the team get together in an empty shop space with two actors, Zelda and Joey, who had met on the train from London and were already very easy in each other’s company (but, I suppose, actors are really good at that, by necessity). When I arrived, everyone was warming up, throwing a ball and names and prescribed actions amongst themselves; finding patterns, rhythms and connections. The temperature of the room – in terms of openness – felt right, as if it were already a space in which interesting journeys could begin and conversations could happen about what it means to be in love, about being visible and invisible; a space in which the piece could be what it wanted to be, gently coaxed into being. The walls were covered in a map of the world, quotations from books that inspired Natalie’s thinking, postcards of defiant kisses in front of Russian landmarks.
Sophia produced a large piece of bleached calico – huge, expansive, unwieldy; it took at least two people to fold it, to manage it in any constructive way – and asked Joey and Zelda to handle it, to share it and pass it between them, to use it to reflect the emotional landscape of two women in love. They played with it – mostly in silence, that seemed important – making shapes, minimising and maximising the folds; maximising and minimising themselves with it and within it. Draped inside it, they became classical statues. They were disguised and revealed; hidden and yet defined.
‘…the fabric defies you, reveals you when you least expect it…’
Those actions – of folding and expanding, unfurling and smoothing, spreading and stretching – prompted myriad connections for me between the body and the mind, and how ‘love’ straddles the physical and the immaterial. It was rich in metaphor about relationships, about the pressures of love under strain, but also in freedom. The fabric simultaneously concealed and revealed – exposed the boundaries of the body, hid the facial expressions, but at once accentuated the body’s expression through movement. Is there more truth in action? That first pull of attraction is primarily a physical response; when the very thought of your lover tugs at something deep within you, and which then triggers a psychological response – the world becomes heightened and exaggerated. There was something about their interactions with each other in relation to the fabric – of exploring the physical before the words – that seemed right and absolutely reflective of the experience of falling in love.
‘…thinking in contours instead of sentences…’
The fabric became a giant bed sheet under which they embraced; they sat at opposite ends, and a ripple begun at one side travelled perfectly, without losing its intensity or undulations, to be received fully formed at the other. Something immaterial given body by the fabric.
Wrapping and enfolding, it became a protective cloak, a cape, or a shroud.
Rolling the fabric, twisting it to create a rope; creating something rigid – able, when coiled, to support its own weight, perching there like an ossified intestine – from something soft and yielding. It became an umbilical cord, a rope to haul you in, a restraint, a noose.
There was a potency in the simplicity of the movements and what they were beginning to create; a collage of images that seemed to convey a passion, a tangible thing that these women might share, might be willing to fight for. And it was important that these moments were beautiful, because what the piece might also explore – oppression, intolerance – are ugly and inhumane.
‘…a living drawing…’
What would the threat of exclusion, of exile, of violence do to your love for each other, to your responses? How does it impact on how honest you could be with each other and yourself? Although central to the project is a love story, the politics – ideas around visibility, about being in and out of the closet, about trust and defiance, about refuge and displacement – are integral. I’m aware of the fact that many gay people around the world are at risk from isolation, from attack, from imprisonment because of who they love. And how can I – as a heterosexual woman – fully comprehend what that means?
Jane played with the idea of ‘push and pull’, asking one actor to attempt ‘escape’ while the other worked to prevent it, by whatever means, and vice versa. There was a lot of wrestling, as well as much laughter around the fact that Joey (very petite) was surprisingly strong, but what ultimately emerged was a series of eloquent episodes that explored conflict at the heart of a relationship under pressure from within and without.
‘…I can’t stay with you – it’s not safe…’
What also emerged was that there was a sense of safety in the push and pull; that despite needing to get away, and being prevented from doing so, one felt loved by the other. And the act of push and pull kept them almost constantly physically entwined. The great physical effort involved in holding on and letting go. They carried each other, both in motion and in stillness, which made me think about burden and trust; when in love, you’ll bear whatever needs to be borne. But there’s only so much we can physically take. Holding a body you love, the weight is more than just mass; it’s everything that person means to you. But their closeness can also be a reminder of when they’re absent, and a hint of what it might mean once they’re gone.
‘…I’m interested in the in-between, what happens there. Trying to find a place between, to defy gravity almost…’
‘…I want to find the space, the silence in between…’
Zelda and Joey sat side by side, on top of the material, which had been folded down to the size of a cushion. Each holding a pile of postcards that Natalie had given them, they read lines to each other – desires and needs, fears and expectations – passing them back and forth, giving words to each other, but also paying particularly attention to searching through the cards to find the right words for the other person to say.
The sound of the cards against each other, the wait for the words to fill the room – was potent and moving. What was also striking was how each actor used their gaze: Zelda very much directing the words to us, to the audience, almost as a challenge, while Joey tended to turn to Zelda, smiling at her before she spoke the words she’d been given to say.
This was something that came up for discussion at the sharing held at the end of the week – it’s a condition of hiring the space, so not necessarily something that the artists or performers felt ready for at this stage, but it actually felt very positive to put what had been worked on so far in front of an audience, and to hear their feedback. A guest posited that the direct gaze ‘demands an audience look at this situation, politically’; another commented that it involves the audience, ‘so we don’t feel as if we’re intruding’. What emerged most clearly was that despite the largely word-free performance, they very much understood that this was a love story, and that the movement sections ‘allowed us to access the depth of the words at the end’.