This blog is part of a series on how I came to write Come Bargain With Uncanny Things (tickets available now!). If you want to read the other parts, see the links below:
I would not normally name individuals in my blogs, but it is slightly their fault.
While I object to any history that limits people to a Great Men-style account of ‘without person X, person Y would never have done Z’, I equally do like to acknowledge people who’ve inspired projects, while knowing that that’ll never be a full list of the people, texts, and coincidences who made my work what it is.
I only apologise that the below can only ever be a partial account of what four people in particular have done to form my work, practice, and self towards my current work, by transforming my ideas of what ‘work’ might be and opening imaginative doors I'd have been unlikely to find so easily by myself.
In late 2014, I met Peter Sellars at a conference. He invited me to observe him working at ENO on The Indian Queen the next year.
I cannot emphasise enough how much that experience transformed how I approach opera, my work, and my life in general. I’d not be the person I am today without him, and I’d certainly not have encountered noh, opera like Peter’s, the ideas needed to navigate it, and how the world can be widened by a rehearsal process.
But I leave that story for another time. While I must always come back to that touchstone when I discuss my artistic DNA, I am little-inclined to write the entire saga I’d have to write for it to be understood.
Suffice it to say: by Peter’s hand, I started to understand new ideas about the how and what of opera: what it could be as a ritual and a form of living practice where one element might simultaneously be a hundred things and none, from the largest whole to the smallest moment, and how opera could be formed, analysed, and crafted into something entirely different.
Classic works can, after all, be reinvented in a number of ways, and it is quite a useful effort when done wisely.
Around 2016, I met Leo at a workshop on queering ancient Greek plays. I was mostly there for the Greek plays; I didn’t know or understand much about the other half of the reading.
I still have the notes from that workshop somewhere, one of which was a conversation about why Don Giovanni couldn’t be done with other voice types (I was on the wrong side), followed by the note “Batti batti = Hit Me Baby?”. Which sparked a thought process that ultimately led to Don Jo! in 2019.
I especially remember Leo’s combination of kindness, critical analysis, radicalism, and playfulness.
Later, I’d go to see their JOAN, a drag king retelling of the life of Joan of Arc, which combined comedy, heartfelt drama, and other genres alongside each other in a way I’d not seen before. Workshops from, and conversations with, Leo would go on to offer tools, ideas, and ways of deconstructing and rebuilding texts and concepts that I use (adapted to greater and lesser degrees) to this day.
Above all, what Leo taught me (with remarkable patience) is to ask why I thought there was a line somewhere. Why not have Don Giovanni sung by an androgynous alto? What do defensive reasons say about the assumptions involved? What might happen if, when Zerlina apologises to Masetto, it’s a cover in the style of Britney Spears?
And why accept bad answers to tired questions?
Why not try something different, and enjoy being alive?
Around 2018, I was leading the life of a recently-qualified librettist (i.e. being useless to anyone, somewhat disaffected with opera, trying to get funding) when a friend took me to a conference mixing TTRPGs and live theatre.
Now, I’d always told myself that much though I’d like to try, Dungeons & Dragons was far too nerdy for me.
But I loved it. In time, Chloe Mashiter’s work with game-based theatre, somewhere between sport, ritual, and absurdist fun would become one of the major hubs of my life.
From ‘sneaking into Orc’s Nest to buy the D&D Starter Set’ to ‘reading content from FATE to Unknown Armies to Abnormal’ to ‘actually publishing TTRPGs and making game-based theatre’ to ‘not being as isolated during lockdown’, I owe a great deal to Chloe.
Above all, what Chloe’s work taught me is a dialogue between the audience and performers, where all are involved. A sense that the community around a piece of work must be as important as the work itself, and most importantly, that the work itself does much to shape that community.
If I had to write a summary of what I’m trying to emulate in Chloe’s work across their forms, it’s the idea that performance, in private or public, can be a form of accessible ritual that does much to bring people together and find something beautiful and kind if done in the right way.
It was also through Chloe’s work that I encountered Tom Black.
You may notice a repetition of an earlier theme here, but when I first heard him describe “interactive immersive theatre set in the past”, I thought “that sounds amazing, and I ought not to go.”
Eventually, I did (in 2019), and Crisis, What Crisis? once again changed my life. I’ve written about it before, but in short, by getting to spend time with other people being the Labour Government just before Thatcher, I had one of the best theatrical experiences of my life.
In particular, the work of Tom Black and the rest of Parabolic Theatre was both rooted in the best of theatre (each show has a distinct high concept thought it’s exploring) while also having a deep sense of fun (because why not invite adults to play and be members of the government in WWII, or the Winter of Discontent?).
It also showed the importance of ensemble, and confirmed a hunch I’d had for a while: that game-based theatre allowed artists and performers to have much more agency, especially when compared to opera’s hierarchies, while also showing that by giving the audience agency, you could get them excited and involved too.
Parabolic Theatre’s course on how to make interactive theatre over lockdown was an invaluable crash course in the pragmatics of how ideas from theatre, TTRPGs, and other forms might be applied. Prior to that, my experiments in interactive opera had been fine, but not-quite-right.
Tying the strand together
I don’t think I’m making a direct copy of any of the above’s work, but I certainly don’t think I could have made Come Bargain without them. It’s quite a privilege (thanks to the Opera Awards Foundation, and their own generosities) to have Chloe and Tom on as consultants for this project.
Frankly, I’m unsure I can fully express what the above four have done for me and my creative practice, but I hope this serves as some acknowledgement as I look back on the path to Come Bargain With Uncanny Things.