My friend/collaborator Rob Jones and I went on a silent day trip around London. This is what happened...
No talking or writing between the hours of 10am and 5pm.
Have 5 tasks or aims in mind of which the other is not aware.
Imagine as much as possible that you cannot understand the language being used by those around us.
As I realised I was going to be slightly late I came across my first challenge and the first layer of modern habits to peel away... I couldn’t text Rob to say I was running late... and I couldn’t verbally say I was sorry. As I strode down the street in a hurry I mentally rehearsed how I might physically apologise. Rob understood my shrug and pained face as I approached the cafe and we hugged.
The first half an hour were full of giggles- I felt as though I was being naughty. Ordering coffee I cheated by pointing to the menu, though this was technically a use of language I couldn’t imagine how the waitress might respond to a game of charades... Embarrassment rose in me as I feared my silence being interpreted as rudeness. I realised the irony of the fact I’d ordered coffee in here yesterday whilst on the phone to Rob, chatting away... The waitress clearly didn’t understand what was happening but she adapted quickly, speaking less herself, making eye contact and softening her approach to us. Having sat down opposite me Rob soon realised his mistake- he had limited his view of the people and traffic passing and was looking directly at me- given that we were not going to be speaking, he joined me looking out. As I watched the busy high street a calmness came over me. London was rushing by- excited by our first warm sunny weekend- but I was still and silent. Mentally I lurched from boredom to excitement for a while, mixed with extreme trepidation that I wouldn’t manage it.
As we made our way towards Hampstead Heath (given the beautiful weather I decided my first task would be to go for a nice walk and thankfully Rob had had the same idea) I kept thinking of things I would say to him at the end of the day. Somehow though, as the day went on, it became more important to notice these things for myself. I realised how much sharing I do nowadays. Its not enough to have an interesting thought- it becomes a Facebook status or a discussion (or a blog!)... So often validation of our experiences comes from the sharing of them with others. But I found a beautiful quiet in noticing things for myself, and holding the thought. It felt respectful of myself somehow.
The second interesting moment came when I stopped to top up my Oyster card. I bumped into a friend, someone I would normally stop and ask how she is etc. I froze and panicked a bit, waved and smiled manically, and turned away hoping she’d seen my Facebook status regarding this little adventure... I regretted the passing of this moment all day. One of my self-set tasks was to have a moment/make a connection with someone other than Rob. I felt I’d missed a chance. Being a dancer as well I’m sure she would have understood my rough signage for ‘I cant speak’ and perhaps a hug and a moment of eye contact would have replaced the chat that would have been my instinct. This was really interesting for me particularly in light of a recent realisation I’ve had about pace. In my enthusiasm for work and life I often charge at top speed through interactions and conversations, raving about my projects, interests and stories like I’m performing a presentation. This is very effective in a meeting or interview, or any work context, and my pace (hyper-speed lets be honest) is serving me very well in my career. However, I have to come to see that it is limiting my opportunities to make genuine connections with those around me, when it comes to building genuine relationships, a slower pace is preferable as it allows the other person space to come forward and opens the channel of communication. This is something I’m working on, and I manage more and more to shuttle between these two states. I very much doubt if its a problem which is peculiar to me. I wonder even if its epidemic in the performing arts- as we charge about proving ourselves and making stuff happen. I also don’t believe it has to be one or the other. I do not intend to slow myself down wholeheartedly, hyper-speed can be useful. But I do intend to cultivate some inner quiet and a more responsive, open pattern, for use among friends and family.
So here I was having profound lightbulb moments 1 hour into my silence... Next we sat on kite hill watching huge numbers of young and stylish new parents guiding, stimulating and protecting their intensely curious and playful offspring. We saw little falls being picked up, dogs being approached and pulled away from, noses wiped and puddles avoided. Already we were realising how impossible it is to rid ourselves of language for the day. Meaning is imposed on everything by language at such a young age and everything we see has a word or a rule and we interpret everything through this framework.
I cooked lunch and again felt I was cheating as I held up the box that says ‘quiche’ on it to check that Rob would like to eat that...
When we got on the tube I realised that the map is a framework routed in language. Things were easy enough when we were following, taking it in turns to respond to an instinct to go this way or that, or to initiate one of our tasks, but what was much harder was negotiation. We tested each other, stubbornly standing on the platform, or walking off purposefully hoping the other would follow. But there was no way to establish who’s instinct was more important, someone just had to give in.
We went to Covent Garden. We watched a street performer doing her Hula Hoop act. She picked Rob as a ‘volunteer’ helper. She asked his name. She had to dub him Bob when she got no response. Throughout the act she referenced the peculiarity and wondered aloud what Bob’s real name was. She was utterly perplexed by why he understood all her instructions and followed them purposefully but was seemingly unable to understand the question ‘what is your name?’ I laughed my ass off throughout the act, she turned to interrogate me to see if I could shed light but I was just as unresponsive. I tweeted her this morning to solve the mystery...
We visited such a busy places, Covent Garden, the river, Tower of London, but I still felt calm and quiet, as well as curious, playful and free. I suppose free of the pressure to perform, or communicate, or fill silence. I became euphoric, and the high increased for a couple of hours, before physical and mental fatigue slowed me up. In the afternoon I was brave enough to leave my phone at home. With just my Oyster card, some money and my keys I had to bag, and in the warm spring sun I had no coat. I was utterly in touch with my body, and my feelings. I found myself wishing I had trained more in parkour so I could really run and jump about. But I jumped on things, ran up stairs two at a time, span on rails around and played games with Rob. He hid himself from me a few times, and experimented with copying peoples body language. We played rhythms with our hands and on surfaces. We entered a stunningly beautiful church with a blossoming tree in front of it. The inside was beautiful too, and I was struck by the quiet and solace in there despite the busy city outside. My euphoria and the peace came together there and I felt I gained insight into why people report religious experiences, why people meditate, why people believe in God. I haven’t been particularly spiritual in my life, largely because often spiritual awareness seems to require a patience which I find challenging (back to pace again...) But I m growing this in myself, and I felt it yesterday.
It was a fun, challenging, interesting and thought provoking day. I gained some insight into the character I’m to be playing, and my process in relation to the piece, but I also felt closer to myself, and perhaps more able to be close to others. I recommend a silent day trip to anyone who’s brave enough.
My latest adventure is a collaboration with Enormous Yes theatre company. My dear friend, director Rob Jones invited me to join him and writer Michael John O’Neill for their new work- The Forbidden Experiment. They became interested in language deprivation experiments and wanted to work with someone who could help them form a physical language. The three of us are each responsible for one of the three pivotal elements (direction, writing and movement) and are also each performing. Working in this way feels organic and unified- and its exciting. Its also wonderful to be working with two people with such a high level of intelligence and skills which are so different and complimentary to my own. A new challenge, and a satisfying deepening of my performance work. The work is being supported by The Glasgow Arches’ Platform 18 and we have the luxury of time for process and exploration- what a treat!
The Forbidden Experiment will be performed at The Arches 23rd-26th April and the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh 30th April-3rd May.