The following piece is a correspondence between two scholars and makers who work between the UK and another European country. The editors invited PA Skantze and Laure Fernandez to reflect on the modes of permissibility and allowance that attend their movements across national borders, and how these affect their work and lives. The resulting dialogue weaves together multiple threads, from questions of taste to reflections on ‘broken’ languages to the pleasures and perils of living ‘in between’ spaces and places.
À : Laure Fernandez <l*********@********.fr>
Envoyé le : Vendredi 16 septembre 2016 11h43
Objet : Re: Interventions
I remember our first lunch at the newish pub near Roehampton; neither of us familiar with pub culture, both of us providing contexts by way of my love of Paris and yours of New York. So first there is this question of where your body has been in working across borders. And what places light up the air between you. My ambivalence about New York met your love of that City and your experiences there. For you, opportunity, for me, a City awash in moneyed white-collar workers who had transformed the bohemian village areas where artists could still eke out a living into quasi-malls as they drove their SUVs in from the suburbs.
Permission to fall into stereotype. This is a permission that comes with a passport – I can talk harshly of the US, of a certain kind of American because it is my country and I know. Permission to be romantic. I love Italy and Italians. I am not blind about the culture, its failings, but what strengths it has knit together the holes left in me of my culture – Anglo-saxon – that dismisses the body and has no time to talk in a casual meeting, has no time to talk when there is money to be made.
The world at the moment, at least for me as someone whose tastes are European [can we write each other more about taste? About national habits of making and performing and viewing and the taste for British, European work?], has shifted. I have a very expensive British passport on which is written the European Union. I pledged allegiance to William Blake [Lambeth native] and to the EU at the ceremony for citizenship as I knew exactly why I wanted to be British, I wanted to be European.
And now I am not. Lots of threats are in the air about moving across borders. I am considering becoming Italian, something I have always wanted but so long ago we decided not to get our ‘permesso di soggiorno’ or permission to stay because it was better to ‘stay under the radar.’ Here, too, is a place we may dwell a bit. In these times of surveillance, in these new spats over what the borders will look like, in a time when to find a phone is to track a body, does the shift in relation between the island of England and the continent of Europe mean we cannot shift without a spotlight catching us in no (wo)man’s land?
To : P A Skantze <p*******@********.com>
Sent : Tue, Sep 20, 2016, 10:21 AM
Subject : Re: Interventions
I remember that day too. I had just arrived in London after having spent a little more than 5 months in New York. In a country where my accent made me feel overly self-conscious, it was reassuring to be welcomed by your warm and energetic (Katherine Hepburn-like) Americanness. ‘My’ London had no shape yet, and it also felt good to discuss a City (New York) I was so sad to have left. Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t love everything about it, but never before had a town made me feel so alive. I enjoyed its multiculturalism, its dirtiness, the harshness of its climate (hurricane Sandy was a big experience). Just a few months after, you went back to the Big Apple (was it for a semester or more?) to teach at NYU and I did envy you.
I remember also, just before leaving New York, thinking: London is next. It was such a happy coincidence that I got an interview there. I was sick of Paris then, and with Roehampton started a life that I now deeply miss: my Eurostar life. A partner and a home in Paris; a job and a place for loneliness in London. I discovered the dimensions of the city, these long hours spent on a train. Paris suddenly felt so small and quiet. I didn’t feel like I was in a new place: it felt like I was constantly in transit. Out-of-the-world somehow, something that the switch, the back and forth between two languages also allowed. Something that created so much space in my brain.I left London just a few weeks before Brexit was voted. It always surprised me so much when I heard British people using the word ‘European’ as if ‘Continental’ was a whole other world. And it was, indeed.
I think I never asked you: did you discover Italy before or after England? What made you go to England first? What do you consider ‘European tastes’?
From grey Paris (always wondered why ‘gay Paris’),
PS: I often apologize for my broken-English (I know it’s not too bad but I want it to be very good), but I like to imagine this exchange as a safe place for broken-languages.
À : Laure Fernandez <l*********@********.fr>
Envoyé le : Dimanche 25 septembre 2016 19h55
Objet : Re: Interventions
Let me start backwards and rejoice in the tolerance for broken language. When I write ‘broken’ it sounds so crisp and declarative in the face of all the woolly words used now to avoid actually being direct, clear and precise, nay poetically precise. This suggests not only a broken language, but one we can hear collapsing as the circulation oozes out of our speaking, bled dry of all the zest that comes with trying to find the right word to convey to another the complexity of thought. Not broken but battered thoroughly. Very different from the queer, I use the word with all its signifiers, art of speaking to one another in ‘bad’ English or ‘bad’ French, which can be the beginning of a cross-pollination of ideas and of images and of idioms.
Words and sounds. Accents. Making sense across language and time. All of these figure into the question of working across cultures. For me what I love about Italians and the language and the culture is how it is one of the gesture. Not just the obvious association about gesture in that it is truly diverting to watch the elaborate hand gestures made by an Italian on a cellphone — clearly that the other person cannot see the hand movement has nothing to do with the need for the gesture to complete the word. But also the generous gesture in conversation. I am frustrated by my level of Italian. While good on a day-to-day basis — I get away with a lot because I speak fast so I ‘sound’ right — when I want to think out loud I am stymied. When we want to work in another country, this fundamental difference between knowing a language and knowing in a language can help and/or hinder. Still the generous gesture that is Italian conversation allows me to approach my idea by way of description, to circle around looking for a word, to map that circle, and to have the relief and pleasure when my interlocutor gets what I mean, supplies the word, and then encourages me to go on, curious, generous, participatory.
As you know, and as I know, Parisians are famous for letting those who mangle the language twist in the social wind between a word said badly and its receiver. It’s not fair this stereotype of the exacting French person, and it is not always true, but one always feels as if the nirvana of actually getting the right grammar in French to go with the right sound exists somewhere out of a foreigner’s space and time. Working across cultures has the zest of both accepting the eccentricities, the habits of a borrowed place while also pushing on the assumptions made by oneself and the other. My enthusiasm renders me an inexplicably cheery Pollyana in the UK, while it simply makes me European in Italy and France. The secret of avoiding cool snobbishness anywhere is to go South, which is what I do.
But going South suggests travelling and we return to Eurostar time. Even before Brexit, Matthew and I talked of being based in Paris, in Europe and me commuting to Roehampton. I love Paris and have beloveds there. Again as we see in these exchanges those borrowed cities allow a kind of pledge of allegiance rarely experienced for one’s own country. I think of James Baldwin’s brilliant essays from abroad, his ability to exquisitely dissect the American psyche while writing essays in France. Anyway, we come to the problem of consumption and climate in the desire to work across. You asked me how I came to England. I was working as an independent scholar in Rome and suddenly the consequences of the Euro hit. Everything went up by 100%, rounded up to the new currency. So I began to look for jobs anywhere Ryanair flew, and they flew to Glasgow where I taught for four years.
I know well the time you speak of in the way travelling separates the life with the beloved with one’s own work and the life of the paid work. I get a lot of work done on planes, but planes are eating away at the lungs of the land and of the people. Yet, and this for me is a big yet, if we are working across borders, in other countries, we need to be in the same room, not by Skype, not by YouTube or a recorded version of performance, so we travel. The fantasy of the closeness of the internet has died under the weight of time and anxiety which seems to increase the more we plan virtual meetings, so we travel.
As Giles Fraser wrote in his searing and wholly welcome article ‘National Borders Exist to Pen Poor People into Reservations of Poverty’, ‘Border Patrols have always been racist in character’ and so my movement, boarding pass in hand, occurs in a moment not only marked by the question of what a British passport will allow for in the future, but much more importantly the psychotic nature of our ability to move commercially against the forced movement of so many others. What does it mean to accept that the work we do includes this movement and depends on it? What are our responsibilities—not just an empty show of ‘oh I shouldn’t’ guilt which is just stupid and reminds me of all those people in the States saying ‘white lives matter too.’ please! – for doing our work across borders in a spirit of undoing them as havens of safety for those who have money and documents?
To : P A Skantze <p*******@********.com>
Sent : Mon, Oct 10, 2016, 12:01 PM
Subject : Re: Interventions
One thing I love about Paris in the fall is that it is Festival d’Automne time — a festival that allows us to discover performances from all over the world in many Parisian venues and accompanies the return of crisp weather. There’s a sort of ritual: before summer, we get a subscription and pick the shows we want to see, which means that eventually, when September arrives, we no longer remember what we have booked. Which makes it even more enjoyable and happy.
A few days ago, my partner and I went to Théâtre de la Bastille to see Antoine et Cléopâtre by Portuguese director Tiago Rodrigues. It was a beautiful experience of what ‘broken’ could mean, in all its splendour and non-judgmental sense. Two Portuguese dancers, performing in French, with a musical accent, a play by the most famous English playwright. In this work, Rodrigues let his performers retell the play. The man explains: ‘Cleopatra does this… Cleopatra thinks that…’. The woman answers: ‘Antoine goes there… Antoine says that…’, until they become Antoine and Cleopatra themselves. Because both the performers are dancers, their bodies speak as much as their lips, and the absence that their hands suggest make the figures appear, for us, beholders. The language occupies the theatre; the room is fulfilled by a strange empty presence. At the end of the play, when Antoine dies, the two performers start a sort of long agony during which they repeat and repeat and repeat together one word, that slowly becomes another, by the beauty of sound association. A long shared breath — or a search for a common breath through words.
It made me think of the space between words and their meanings, and the beauty of the freedom a non-complete understanding and control of another language offers. My grandparents were Spanish. They never went to school, did not really know how to read and write, so when they arrived in France, they learned with their ears and through their children. I remember being amused, as a child, to hear my grandmother use the rudest slang because she did not realize the heaviness of such words (something that Lydie Salvayre gently demonstrates in her book on her parent’s escape from Spain, Pas pleurer). To my abuela, they were light insults. I chose not to learn Spanish at school (I wanted to speak German, like my mother), so the one I know and understand is a real broken one. The older my grandparents got, the harder it was for French people to understand them (too Spanish), and the harder it was for their Spanish family, too (too French). They had created their own language — a common thing among emigrants.
When I got my PhD, my grandfather gave me an envelope with a little bill in it. On the envelope, he did his best to write my name: LOLGUN. Something that for him probably resembled my real name: LAURE. He had let the pencil go, in shapes that he thought were the right ones. It meant more to me than the bill inside.
I am having a weird time writing these emails to you. My mind is blurry, at the same time empty and full of words and images. I don’t think you know that, but after 2 IVFs, I am finally 6 months pregnant. My brain has never been so dissociated from me, and so linked to my own childhood. I float in a state that is permanently ‘broken’, ‘across’, ‘curious’, ‘generous’: all these words you used to describe your experience of living in a foreign country and your encounter with the un-familiar. As I was missing my back-and-forth kind of existence, I became myself a foreign and familiar land, going back-and-forth within my own territory: a strong return of my past, a present full of new experiences, and a future to look forward to.
I realize this message has ‘ni queue ni tête’ (how do you express it in English?). It just felt like a natural answer to the sweetness of your last letter and the territory it opened.
Date: Tue, Nov 1, 2016 at 8:24 AM
Subject: Re: Interventions
To: Laure Fernandez <l*********@********.fr>
Many joyous congratulations on the state of expecting and expectancy. I always think of Lou Reed’s drawling voice, ‘I hope it’s true what my wife said to me, I hope it’s true what my wife said to me, it’s the beginning of a new adventure’ and of Springsteen’s ‘Living Proof’, two rock guys whose delight and nervousness of fatherhood seems very gentle and right.
Antony and Cleopatra is a text rich with history for me, lots of it private and tucked away in boxes that might be marked love letters from the beginning. But the between you speak of in the production in the Festival d’Autonme [this is a festival for the future for me; I am always saying ‘we need to book’ and then we don’t and then because of those subscriptions made in the summer forgotten until Autumn made by so many Parisians, the single tickets not available until September are gone] of saying and speech, of lines and the bodily sculpting of the space between the speakers sits at the heart of much of what Shakespeare does. At the moment I am awake to all betweens, because of a festival on Shipwreck, Washed Up, where the between is the waiting on the shore or in the doldrums, because of a project in which I am obsessed with the between of speaking and singing.
His delights were dolphin-like. Age cannot wither nor custom stale her infinite variety. She makes hungry where most she satisfies. This play works by the swelling of the language into an idea of a lover impossible and yet just about possible — could anyone be that wondrous? Maybe yes. We live in a time in which even those acting in ethically powerful ways, quietly on the margins of a ruined camp in Calais, on the sea in a boat that rescues the marooned, remain unknown while those too well known receive the opposite of such world enhancing imagining, a dismissive or even vile flick of a sentence shot round the electronic world, the confirmation to all of us that we are failing, that our leaders are failing, that things are failing….
So one ‘between’ now has to do with between naiveté and dismissal, holding perhaps as the dancers do to a non-speaking or a simple space of finding our way with one another. The brokenness an offering not an assessment; we make up what we need in sound, in speech. Recently in a performance Matthew and I had our character Eurydice, in order to reassure Orpheus, in order to make him steadfast in knowing what’s important which is getting her out of hell, make ‘a variety of non-verbal reassuring noises.’ Across borders, across generations, across a kind of social madness where we cannot take care of ourselves or each other, such noises might help us concentrate on getting each other out of hell rather than taking a picture of it and turning to show it to each other and ‘poof’ we are gone.
PA Skantze is a director, writer and spectator of theatre and performance based in London and Italy. She works internationally with her performance company Four Second Decay. She is Reader in Performance Practices in the Department of Drama, Theatre and Performance at Roehampton University, and author of Stillness in Motion in the Seventeenth-Century Theatre (Routledge 2003) and Itinerant Spectator/Itinerant Spectacle (Punctum Books 2013).
Laure Fernandez is a researcher in the performing arts. Her thesis, defended in 2011, focused on theatricality in the visual arts (1960-2010). A former Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Drama, Theatre & Performance department of University of Roehampton (London) and an associate researcher at Thalim-CNRS (Paris), she co-directs the NoTHx seminar (Nouvelles Théâtralités / New Theatricalities) at Théâtre Nanterre-Amandiers (Paris), dedicated to the evolution of performance creations post-2000 and to the critical and analytical renewal for which the study of these works often seems to call.
Homepage image: View of the English Channel from Margate. Photo by Laure Fernandez.