First, it was snowing outside, which created a kind of excitement in the air in New York City, since January had so far been spring like. The performance was to start at 4:45 p.m. I waited with Bill inside a nameless store selling “designer” clothes for less, which was situated next to another charmless establishment with the name handwritten on construction paper: Jam It In A Bag. We were waiting inside the store for the audience to find him, since they had been told the address, but not what it was or where to go. Eventually, once I saw them outside the store and they had not seen us, we went outside and asked them inside. They had to check their bags at a table in order to be allowed in the store, something Bill wanted to have happen since it seemed like a coat-check at a theater. These three people and I (an invited audience, one of whom videotaped the event) followed Bill to the shoe section, where he talked informally to everyone about shoes and the weather in a seemingly casual way. He then introduced what he would do, by dedicating the performance to Verity Sharp, whom he described as a “radio presenter” and one of the women of his dreams. He said that this would be the focus of his performance: dreams and these women who inhabit his dreams. During all this, he was taking on and off a pair of shoes from the store. He then abruptly asked us all to leave the store and we followed him to the corner of University and 14th Street where many buses run in different directions. Bill had told me in advance he chose this spot to catch a bus so he wouldn’t know where we would end up. As everyone was getting their bags from the bag check person and following him to the bus, there was talk of who needed bus fare and also that the three other audience members were sure when waiting outside the store that we were across the street videotaping them waiting. There was a kind of nervous laughter surrounding this event, caused by the not-knowing of where we were going or what would happen next. We all piled onto the bus, which was going uptown, as it turned out, and we followed Bill to the back of the bus, where the four of us could sit facing him. He began by asking us each to help him carry his overcoat, his knapsack and then a wig, which I ended up getting. He asked me to put it on, which - to my surprise - I did. There was something quite disarming about being asked to help the “performer”. The whole thing so far in fact was reversing the process wherein one usually helps the audience - to find the performance, to feel comfortable, etc. Instead, from the very beginning, the tables were turned and we were the disoriented ones, finding ourselves following him around wondering what we should do next.
After the items were distributed, he told us he wanted to tell us about the women of his dreams, that there were six of them, three dead and three alive. He mentioned Verity Sharp briefly, but then described his aunt Iris, who wasn’t really his aunt, and places they used to go together, including the British Museum to look at the mummies, and the time they went to a Wimpy’s an hour before the IRA blew it up. This story had a jarring effect, because it began as if it would be funny, and then ended with this violence. He then described her wake, which also had a funny quality to it, because of the cheesiness of the setting described set next to the fact of her death. He assured us however that this was a perfect tribute to her. He then went on to describe Verity, who is apparently well-known in London. But we, the audience, were all from New York. She apparently had hair not dissimilar to the wig I had on my head. That put me in the interesting position of feeling as if I was being described by implication, and yet knowing that was untrue. He talked about his fantasy relationship with this radio personality. He then abruptly said that this was enough of the past and he wanted to bring us into the present and, I believe, something about the show beginning. He rang the bell for us to get off at the next stop.
We followed him off the bus onto Madison Avenue in the 30’s, and 15 minutes having passed on the bus, it was completely dark. However, the snow made it seem lighter. The streets and sidewalks of Madison Avenue are quite wide, and the buildings quite large and not very welcoming. We were outside of a huge Kinko’s - a chain of computer/copy stores around the city. Bill went into a different mode, no longer informal or speaking to us. His body went into a kind of rigid posture and he began writing with chalk on the building - beginning with THEY ARE until the writing became more hieroglyphic and less like words. As he wrote, he would fix his gaze on one member of his audience at a time and write without looking at his hand. His gaze was quite intense, but indecipherable in terms of meaning. Other people walking along the street stopped and watched. Some asked what he was doing. A young boy was perfectly content to just watch. Another woman was watching from a second story window outside a hair dressing salon, delighted by the display. Having someone videotaping the performance, I felt, gave it a nimbus of protection somehow - as if that contextualized it as a performance so people could at least know that much. After writing, he then abruptly walked away rapidly down the street, and we decided to follow him. He walked into a deli and bought some water, and we watched him through the window. The woman at the cash register began to understand she was in a show of some kind and laughed when she saw us watching. Bill then walked out of the store and stood in another rigid posture, kind of leaning, and as a man with two dogs tried to pretend he wasn’t there in front of him, Bill poured the water out into his own pants’ pocket. The dogs were interested. The owner of the dogs just wanted it to all go away.
Bill then held his body stiffly lengthwise above the sidewalk, holding his weight with one arm while writing in large letters THOSE THINGS WE CANNOT ACCEPT. He kind of hopped sideways to do this. Throughout the whole time after he had gotten off the bus, he had not said a word to us. We all kind of negotiated ways of watching him - how far, how close. Where would the video person be, etc.
He then stood up and asked me to look at the opposite street, away from him and the other people in the audience. He either asked me or placed my arms behind me. I can’t remember which. After a few moments, I looked back, not sure what I should be doing. He then touched my shoulders, adjusting them slightly. This had an odd effect of a kind of involuntary trust exercise. Both soothing and unsettling simultaneously, I was feeling like a performer without her lines. A few moments later, he took the wig off my head and put it on his own head and walked to another part of the sidewalk, which was near some old pieces of carpet. It looked as if it might be a homeless person’s bedding, but was not. He then very carefully took off his shoes and socks, wrote BRICK LANE and drew an arrow pointing away on the sidewalk and then lay on top of it. He was only wearing light linen clothing and I remember thinking he must be cold and a passerby was also concerned and told him he should put on more clothes. We eventually got closer to him when one audience member said, he’s singing, which he was, quite softly. His eyes were closed, but covered mostly by the wig. After a minute or so of this (during which time he seemed quite vulnerable and when we were standing around him, it kind of felt like standing around someone who had just gotten hit by a car and no one’s sure what to do), he got up and said, “OK, let’s go get a drink, I’m cold” and asked for his coat back, put on his shoes, and off we went to do so.
This abrupt end seemed oddly appropriate, since it felt like waking from a dream state, which the whole performance essentially put us all in - not as in “dreamy” images but as in the dislocation that manifest in dreams as they are actually experienced. These dislocations in actual dreams are usually quite abrupt and go from one thing to another quite rapidly. Bill’s ability to dislocate his bodily presence from informal to formal was key to this ability, along with the physical dislocations and dislocating the audience’s and the performer’s traditional roles. All of the images created a kind of organic whole similar to the organic whole of a dream, which cannot be exactly located in a linear, meaning sense, but resonate nonetheless. The informal discussion about the performance afterwards in a bar we discovered (where of course none of us had ever been - and as a New Yorker, having my own sense of the City dislocated was an event in and of itself) had the feeling of talking about a dream as well, except one we had all been in together, only with differing perspectives. I think my perspective was somewhat unique because I had a bit of an idea of what might be happening, though not much, whereas the others had none, but they all mentioned the same sense of dislocation and the fascination of watching this process unfold, and how we made the decisions to follow or not follow, etc.
All in all, the most successful evocation in waking life of a dislocating/dislocated dream state I have ever witnessed, and the most resonant - made more so because of all the levels of physical space, presence and language used to evoke these continually shifting states.
- Julia Lee Barclay (February 4-7, 2002)
Bill Aitchison’s D-P-M will be presented in the New York International Fringe Festival in August
Julia Lee Barclay is a published, award-winning playwright/director based in New York City. She has directed and taught her work both in London (Chisenhale Dance Space, Lion and Unicorn Pub Theatre and Arcola Theatre) and New York (The Present Company and FringeNYC, Mabou Mines, HERE, among others). In 2003, her plays WORD TO YOUR MAMA and NO ONE will be presented as a double-bill in London and New York.