SPILL STINGS 17: Reflections on Glorious
Thu 01 Jan 1970
Mary Paterson is working as a writer with Rajni Shah Projects and Glorious. She is compiling The Glorious Storybook – a publication that documents the process of making the show, and the experiences of everyone involved. Here she reflects on the process leading up to the SPILL performances.
‘I am not normally a joiner. I don’t normally take part in things.’ Brian is one of the London performers in Rajni Shah’s Glorious, who has lived in the area around the Barbican for 40 years.
What made you take part in this, then – the interventions, the workshops, three public performances: an altogether shared enterprise?
‘I saw a woman in Whitecross Street holding a flower and I thought: that’s someone I want to get to know.’
Glorious is a musical that is reimagined in every place it’s performed, and which involves new performers and musicians each time. In the London production, 10 musicians from Guildhall School of Music & Drama have rearranged the musical composition for Acts 2 and 3, and will only be performing Glorious in its Barbican shows. Similarly, the six performers whose stories are the content of the piece are non-professionals the company met through local interventions. The show at SPILL Festival, then, is unique to London and to this part of London in particular.
The interventions in Whitecross Street, the road that leads from the futuristic maze of the Barbican up to the more recognizable hustle and bustle of Old Street, began in January. Rajni Shah, Lucille Acevedo-Jones, Karen Christopher and Tiffany Charrington set up a letter writing stall, asking people to write a letter to a stranger, and receive one in return. By early February, as Shah writes in a note to the audience, ‘we had met over 300 people.’ Over time, six of them ‘went from being strangers’ to the performers who read out their stories on the Barbican stage.
These interventions are an essential part of the process of Glorious, not just because they’re a way of meeting people, but also because they start to build a kind of social code. The woman who walks towards you isn’t just going to give you a flower; she will ask something of you in return. And writing a letter to a stranger (if you choose to do it) is a complicated process – private and public at the same time. Only one person will read each letter, which means your privacy is protected. But sharing your words with a stranger is an act of trust – trust that your thoughts will be respected, trust that everyone sticks to the wider process, and trust that you will respect the thoughts of the person whose letter you read.
As a social space, then, Glorious is a delicate and complex affair, constantly negotiated around a basic, material structure. Likewise, the artistic space of the show (the limited-run production that will involve these six strangers, the Guildhall musicians, and a core cast from Rajni Shah Projects) is negotiated around the shape of a traditional musical – an overture and three acts. The first time I heard the show all the way through, I was struck most of all by its repetition: a thrill of recognition as the words and melodies from Act 1 were repeated in Act 2. This repetition/ recognition flowed through me as I watched and listened, until I was travelling with the performance, instead of running behind it. The familiar shape of the musical, alongside the nature and fact of the music itself, is the material structure that anchors the audience together with the company, the performers and the musicians.
And yet, unlike the ability to strike up a friendship, artistic skill is not an ability everyone shares. It takes training, confidence and talent to stand centre stage and sing for three acts – qualities Rajni Shah has in abundance. It takes a large amount of smoke and mirrors to construct a stage show – a fact that is emphasised in Glorious’s bare set, open scene changes and the inclusion of wires and technical equipment into Shah’s costume. What, then, of the non-professional performers who read out their stories on individual microphones in between songs? Is it ok if they stumble over a line? What standards should we use to judge the musicians – are they ‘good for students’? Or are they simply ‘good’? Is Shah, still and solid and central for the whole show, an emblem of professional practice? Is she the gatekeeper to ‘art’? Is she in control?
I am watching the premiere of Glorious at the Barbican. I’ve seen a dress rehearsal but I’m not prepared for this – the tension in the room formed by hundreds of eyes and ears trained on the stage. ‘Judge.’ ‘Standards.’ ‘Quality.’ ‘Control.’ It’s easy to slip into this kind of language when you’re talking about a theatre production, particularly one where the audience has bought tickets and which looks familiar, at least at first. But these ideas don’t fit Glorious, and any attempt to answer them misses the point of the questions as well as the point of the show. If an actor misses a line it matters because it disrupts the mimetic fantasy of a play. But the performers in Glorious are not pretending to be someone else. The style of a concert matters because the audience has paid for an aesthetic experience. But the musicians in Glorious have no pre-defined standard to meet. The position of the lead artist matters when she embodies the meaning of a show. But the structure of Glorious means the whole company shares that responsibility.
As the show unfolds and the audience places itself more or less successfully inside its rhythm, it strikes me that the audience has a responsibility too. Our responsibility to this performance is not to watch it like a West End musical, which whisks you on a breathless journey before you have time to think. Nor is it to celebrate our individual subjectivity in response to the object of art. It’s to develop a friendship: a mutual and reciprocal relationship with the shifting dynamics of Glorious as a social and an aesthetic space. It’s to say, ‘I saw a woman in Whitecross Street holding a flower and I thought: that’s someone I want to get to know’, or its equivalent. ‘I saw someone singing and I thought: that’s someone I want to get to know.’
‘I heard someone talking …’
‘I saw someone watching …’
It strikes me that the negotiation that happens in the production of Glorious is not between the professionals and the non-professionals. It’s between the people on stage and the people in seats. At the end of the show Rajni Shah steps out of her costume and leaves the theatre; there is no space for applause. Instead, the audience is invited to take over the stage.
‘I saw something happen in a place where I belong, and I thought: I’ll belong there too.’