Journeys in Performance
Paper presented at Into the New Symposium, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and the Arches, Glasgow, January 2014
My journey begins with what Laura Watts (2008) calls ‘imagined desire’ - a vision of flying across the Atlantic Ocean, exploring a new city in temperatures down to the minus 20s. I am travelling as co-director of Bullet Catch by Rob Drummond; a touring theatre show produced by the Arches. Together with Rob and our Stage Manager, Deanne Jones, I have visited several new places in the last couple of years, from Edinburgh to America, Brighton to Brazil. This is the last time I will travel with the show. But I couldn’t miss out on Michigan. I have always been drawn to the snow-capped mountains and icy lakes of North America.
In the days leading up to my departure, there are reports of a ‘polar vortex’ that is gripping large parts of the north-eastern states in an ‘ice storm’. I have never heard the phrases ‘polar vortex’ or ‘ice storm’ before. I reconsider the trip. I phone Mary, the producer in Michigan, and she reassures me. It will be fine, she says. This happens every year. We’re used to it.
We fly over the north Atlantic, the tip of Greenland and South-Eastern Canada, arriving in Newark Liberty International Airport with only an hour’s delay. It feels good to be travelling – somehow an affirmation of the success of our theatre show or a way of proving to myself that I am literally going somewhere. We sit in the lounge, waiting for our connecting flight to Detroit, reading, drinking coffee and chatting about our work. As we do so, we patiently watch the delay time on the computer display stretching out into the evening until we know that there is no chance of reaching our destination that night.
The inevitable cancellation of the Detroit flight instigates a frenzy of phone calls, emails, queuing and rebooking. Between ourselves, the United Airways staff at Newark, our producer in Glasgow and Mary in Ann Arbor, we arrange to spend the night at the Double Tree Hotel near to the airport, and we are rebooked onto a flight the following evening. “There is no way you are getting your bags any time soon”, we are told at Baggage Reclaim. This is our main concern now. Without the props in Deanne’s suitcase, there will be no performances this week. “It’s not happening. We’re not pulling any bags”.
We take a taxi to the hotel and over the next few hours, various efforts are made to reroute our luggage. We allow ourselves a moment of respite and I enjoy two cold glasses of Samuel Adams Boston lager and a medium-rare cheese and bacon burger - one of the best meals I have had in a while.
The next day, we return to the airport in plenty of time to attempt to retrieve our bags. Covering all bases, I wait at the check-in desk while Deanne and Rob return to Baggage Reclaim. Both queues are long and slow moving. While I wait, I receive a text from Deanne, ‘Our flight is cancelled’. The process repeats itself - phone calls, emails, queuing and rebooking. The plan is to travel thirty miles across the city to JFK airport, where we can all be booked onto a flight to Detroit that leaves that evening.
But I have just read something about ‘frost quakes’ and I am no longer keen to reach Michigan. As the co-director of a relatively straightforward show that has been performed and stage-managed over a hundred times by my colleagues, I am an expendable member of the team at this point in the tour. Would it be possible, I wonder, to simply go home. My ‘imagined desire’ has turned on its head and I think about returning to my fiancé and my warm, familiar flat. It takes a while - an hour to be exact - but when I return to the desk, a tremendously helpful and persistent member of the airline check-in staff somehow manages to find me a seat on the evening’s flight back to Glasgow. I ignore a latent feeling of guilt about deserting my friends and we say our farewells.
On the flight home, I have three seats to myself and I lie across them, sleeping comfortably for most of the journey and watching half of Star Trek Into Darkness before we land in a dark and drizzly city. On the way home, my taxi driver asks if I have had a good trip.
Over fifty hours, in the limbo of Marc Augé’s (2009) ‘non-places’, I have taken a taxi, a plane, a train, a second taxi, then after a night in a hotel, a bus, a second train, a second plane and a third taxi. I arrive back at my flat with nothing to show for my misadventure save for an irresponsibly large carbon footprint and the loss of two days, $250 and my suitcase, which, I am reliably informed, is somewhere in the company of 10,000 other bags stranded in airport limbo.
This will teach me to romanticise travel, I think. This will teach me to ignore weather warnings. This will teach me to imagine.
So, what have I learnt from this experience? In transit, this journey was tangible, corporeal, at times exhausting and uncomfortable. But the present of travel is continually deferred, moved on and erased and the passage of time is marked by the progress of miles and the shifting land and seascapes below aeroplanes.
Beforehand, and retrospectively, travel exists as an imagined space and time. Looking back, recalling the journey in memory, I am engaged in imaginative reconstruction: selective editing, a reduction of details identified by Alain de Botton (2003) as creative process of omission and compression (15). However, this creative translation of my journey is problematic for two reasons. First, the omission and compression of artistic imaginations can exclude the most important features of international travel. The commas in my list of planes, trains and automobiles reduce significant time periods into single punctuation marks. However, as Monika Büscher and John Urry (2009) point out, a lot happens between transit, while we are ‘temporarily immobilised - within lounges, waiting rooms, cafes, amusement arcades, parks, hotels, airports, stations, motels, harbours and so on’ (108). Between ‘train’ and ‘second taxi’, we arranged a night in a Newark hotel, corresponded with our producers to book us onto the next available flight to Detroit, and tried in vain to retrieve our luggage.
These mundane details often involve problem solving - a necessarily relational practice that relies on a range of technologies, networks and systems. They are the reality of international travel, but in our memories, diaries and stories, we routinely gloss over them, forget the people who have helped or hindered us, and reduce significant experiences to commas in lists.
Second, I am aware that my ‘imaginative desire’ partly arises from a fetishisation of mobility. At its worst, this impulse to travel and my desire to physically ‘go somewhere’ is a form of excessive consumption – which Anthony Elliott and John Urry (2010) criticise as ‘the internationalisation of a consumer culture held in thrall to instant gratification, continual self-reinvention, superficiality and addictive, short-term “highs”’ (23). As we enter a new phase of mobilities, in which climate change exerts its influence, oil supplies are in decline and transport systems buckle under the pressure, it is necessary to imagine alternative futures. The main question to address is whether to maintain an uncritical position in relation to our touring practices, maintaining current patterns of behaviour because that’s just the way it is, or rather to imagine alternative models of touring, aspiring towards an ecologically responsible, culturally sensitive approach to mobility.
In many ways, the choice may not be ours to make. If we have now passed the peak of global oil supply, the transport infrastructure that facilitates our international travel will necessarily change (Urry 2013). Concurrently (and interrelatedly), climate change is leading to a new form of capitalism and the prospect of a culture of decarbonisation is becoming a reality. While the exact nature of these changes is not yet clear, the mobilities system as we know it is clearly unsustainable. There are many different ways in which touring theatre could change in the relatively near future and we need to start to imagine these possible scenarios. Bullet Catch will continue to tour without me in 2014 as the production visits Wellington, Sydney, Toronto and Hong Kong. This model of frenetic intercontinental touring is arguably irresponsible and may not be sustainable for much longer, but it will almost certainly change. Perhaps some of these issues will therefore come to be seen as more important in performance research and practice in coming years, and perhaps more work will start to pre-empt this shift? I am hopeful that others will take up this line of enquiry in productive and imaginative ways.
Augé, M. (2009). Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, London: Verso Books
Botton, A. de (2003), The Art of Travel, London: Penguin Books
Büscher, M. and Urry, J. (2009), ‘Mobile Methods and the Empirical’, European Journal of Social Theory 12:1, 99-116
Elliott, A. and Urry, J. (2010), Mobile Lives, Oxon: Routledge
Urry, J. (2013), Societies Beyond Oil: Oil Dregs and Social Futures, London: Zed Books
Watts, L. (2008), ‘Travel Time Use in the Information Age Key Findings: Travel Time (or Journeys with Ada)’, [paper], London: Department for Transport. http://eprints.lancs.ac.uk/4348/1/watts_journeyswithada.pdf (accessed 07/06/13)
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