PAULA VARJACK & CHARLES ADRIANIN CONVERSATION
Paula Varjack: How would you describe the process of devising to someone unfamiliar with it?
Charles Adrian: There are many ways to devise but at its simplest it’s just a way of generating material for performance. You come to the creation period with themes, ideas, stories, images, music, gestures, text fragments, costumes, objects – anything really – as well as the skills and experiences of the people in the room and you use all of that that to start building something that you can then shape into a piece that can be performed repeatedly. The repeatability is important, I think. The finished piece may contain improvisation – it may be entirely improvised – but there will be some kind of script or score that has been developed during the devising process so that everybody involved knows what they are doing.
PV: What is it you most like about making work in this way?
I love the freedom of a devising process, and the feeling that anything is possible, and the knowledge that whatever we make will be the way it is because I was in the room. And I’ve always loved playing around with people, making stuff up that can then be refined and condensed and cherry-picked and processed and turned into something that tells a particular story, or makes audiences feel a particular way. It feels magical to me to arrive at the rehearsal room on the first day of a creation period, knowing that we have nothing yet, but that in a set number of weeks we will have a show that we can perform to paying audiences.
PV: You have recently moved away from performing as your character Ms Samantha Mann. What drove that? How has that experience been?
CA: Ms Samantha Mann came about because I was studying with Philippe Gaulier and I had a curly wig at home that I wanted to use, so I built a character around it that made people laugh. It took me a while to realise that she was also a vehicle for me to talk about things that were really important to me – like loneliness and grief – without it feeling too personal. Recently, though, I’ve been feeling more and more that I need to take the costume off and talk about the things that matter to me in a more straightforward way.
So I started working on a piece about hopelessness that was just me on a chair in front of an audience with no other artifice standing between us, which felt great but also a little strange because I still don’t know exactly what that project is. I’ve also been lucky enough to work with Vera Chok on a kind of improvisation lab that was hosted once a month by the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham until the pandemic closed everything down. That was a space where we got to explore what we can create using just our bodies and our voices with no script, no costumes, no sound, no lighting and it’s been really exciting. I want to do more of that in the world that comes after. Samantha’s wig is at the bottom of my clothes cupboard, so I see it every day. I still have no desire to put it back on.
PV: What drives you to make theatre and what drives you to watch theatre? How is this connected or not?
When I watch theatre, I want to see work that moves me and makes me feel good and makes me feel connected to other people and to the world - and I want to do all of that for the people who come to see the work that I make. But I also make theatre because being on stage is the closest thing I can imagine to being in flow state and, for a long time, it was the only place that I felt really good in my skin. But then, I also find it hard to deal with the pressure that I put on myself to perform and the pressure that I feel not to let the people I’m working with down and I find that watching theatre can be exhausting and confusing and angering and anxiety-provoking and I don’t always want to put myself through any of that. So, yes, in my head it all feels connected. The theatrical space is intense and magical – both real and unreal at the same time – and I feel the importance of that wherever I am within that space.
PV: Here are my questions for you Paula:
AC: Do you feel like an artist even when you are resting? Do you rest? Do you know how to rest?
When I see this question, I get the sense you might suspect that I don't rest, or that I find it hard to rest. It’s funny for me to respond, because right now I am actually writing this at eleven pm, the night before my deadline for submitting it, using the voice activated typing function on Google Docs because I feel burned out from typing and working in general. So I think you have tapped into something. I think part of the problem, I take so much pride in knowing that I can be self directed, set myself tasks, get things done, and juggle quite a lot.
The problem is how to make sure there is space between all I do, space and pause that I know I need. I suppose there's something in seeing myself as an artist defined by making. But in the last years, I've started to see more of being an artist as daydreaming and reflecting and not doing . But I find it much harder, much less natural, to frame that. Even when I'm trying to do things that are what I would consider recreational, I think about doing things that normally involve consuming art in some way: to see a film or an exhibition or performance. So as much as the circumstances of my moving to my parent’s house in Sussex were sad, what being here has done for me a little bit, is find other ways to not work. To just sit in the garden and wait for butterflies, to cut flowers and arrange them, to play a record and listen to the whole album, both sides. It’s mainly about slowing down and trading culture for nature.
AC: Could you imagine making something that is so good that you would feel as though you never have to make anything else again? What would it be?
PV: I don’t even want to begin to imagine that because to make that thing would mean the end of making work, and that to me sounds something like death. I like the process far too much to feel like there is one thing to make to end all things. My father never wanted to retire really. Even after he retired he wanted to consult, which in a way meant to still work but less. I don’t want to retire either. So rather than fantasise about the one final sublime work to end all works, I imagine an endless desire to keep making work. I would like to think I will still be trying to create right until the very end. I might want something different later, but that’s the dream for now.
Charles Adrian is an actor, writer and podcaster. He has worked extensively as a deviser and performer in theatre and film in the UK and across mainland Europe. He is one half of Vera & Adrian and the man behind Ms Samantha Mann.