British Theatre: Gary Stevens by Allen Frame

BOMB 22 Winter 1988
022 Winter 1988
Stevens 01 Body

Gary Stevens in If the Cap Fits, London. Photograph by Julian Maynard Smith.

Gary Stevens considers himself to be a “hybrid sculptor.” As a writer, director and performer, he uses forms of popular entertainment, like the slapstick and deadpan of silent comedy and the standup informality of vaudeville, to complement his rigorous post-minimalist aesthetic.

His last two shows, If the Cap Fits (performed with artist Caroline Wilkinson) and Invisible Work (performed with Julian Maynard Smith of the visual theatre group Station House Opera) have both used the comic double act to look at ways in which relationships are represented and established. The individual’s tentative stance, shifting between intimacy and alienation, a sense of self and a sense of the other, is presented with humor and pathos. Both works have been presented at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London as well as many other performance venues around Britain.

Allen Frame How did your earlier sculptural work develop into theatre?

Gary Stevens The early installation work was, to a large extent, a text that commented on ordinary objects. It gave them a false history and made those objects strange. Then I started working in film. The objects became the image, and the text became the dialogue or monologue, and that’s when I first started working in performance. I was too obsessive to work with film. And, in the end, I didn’t like the way film spoke money louder than anything else. I like the fact that, at least in theory, anyone can work for the stage.

AF What do you mean “too obsessive” for film?

GS I wanted to experiment in film. And find out through working with the actual material rather than planning beforehand, and I just couldn’t afford to do that. I certainly think good filmmakers are obsessive too, but they have to be interested in the equipment. I really wasn’t. One of the things I like about theatre is that you can be as obsessive and meticulous as you like, in the development of the structure, and yet, the performance is so ephemeral and fragile. You can have these two aspects, and that is what I fell in love with.

AF Had you presented this deadpan comic persona in your work from the beginning?

GS Yes, comedy was always a feature of the work. I like sabotage and self-effacement, which can draw attention to oneself as an object, a psychological object—or social, economic…It turns my desires and demands back on me. I like the distance you can achieve with comedy. You get a distance without actually losing the audience’s interest.

AF You’re very reminiscent of certain silent film actors, Buster Keaton, for instance. Is that something you’ve consciously explored?

GS I like the comparison. The way that Buster Keaton moves and looks interests me a lot. The deadpan technique works in mysterious ways. It’s very difficult to analyze. It’s something to do with—one is looking at this extraordinary thinking object, and you can see him solving problems. Buster Keaton looks out of his face as if it were a mask and hides behind it. He’s not surprised or shocked. He doesn’t know what to think about anything. His deadpan is not so much an inscrutability as a problem of thinking anything at all. He lacks an image of himself in the same way a child or an animal does. It’s a pre-Oedipal portrait.

AF It’s a kind of acting that allows audience projection, but it’s conveyed through very stylized movement.

GS Yes, I think “projection” is the operative word. It throws the responsibility for the reading onto the audience. So you present yourself as an object that can be read in many ways. And one knows that it has meanings, but you don’t determine which of those readings is the right one. There isn’t a right one. I much prefer the audience to be responsible for making the meaning. It is an object for them and me to chew over and not a vehicle for my opinions.

AF The structure invites the audience to resolve an open-ended situation?

GS I think “live with” rather than “resolve.” I’m not interested in plotting a course through a situation—a narrative that either ends happily or sadly—or whatever. I’d much rather show all the faults or characteristics of this situation that would lead to certain kinds of results. The drama is in the potential of that situation rather than in contingent actions within the situation. Actually, I’m beginning to dislike the word “situation.” Instead of “situation” it’s more of a loaded image. I don’t create a dislocated fragment of a situation that is the picture in the making. In the end, the picture isn’t really made at all. The tragic element is the failure of the protagonists to satisfactorily represent themselves.

It really is a theatre of potential rather than drama. The drama is the shifts of meaning rather than physical action. It’s more of a play with pictures than a situation. With Invisible Work I liked the idea of its being just two men because I was particularly interested in a comic double-act relationship. It’s a peculiar sort of picture of a relationship as an extended adolescence. With If the Cap Fits I wanted to deal with the relationship between a man and a woman and that was far more problematic on the stage. The sexual politics makes it more problematic. Structurally what I like to do is if one person does something, then the other person has to do an equivalent thing. One isn’t more or less dominant. And actually dealing with equivalents rather than symmetries means that basically it’s open to interpretation.

Stevens 02 Body

Gary Stevens and Caroline Wilkinson in If the Cap Fits, London. Photograph by Julian Maynard Smith.

AF Could you give an example of equivalent actions in a piece?

GS In Invisible Work there is a sort of fantasy section which is basically a monologue of mine where I describe pushing my head through a wall. And then Julian Maynard Smith has, straight after that, a section where he sees some animal behind the sofa. Both of them are fantasies and both end ambiguously. There is a tragic element but they both stop because of a logical failure in the construction of the separate fantasies. The performers aren’t characters. They’re not actually portraying people as such. It’s impossible not to read them as personalities on a stage. I’m relying on that, but in doing so, I can also work against it. So the equivalency is basically within the structure, and the performers are elements of that structure.

AF The performers’ movement is so integral to the structure that I would expect you to have had a dance background perhaps.

GS No, I don’t. I think that as a basic rule I would not move unless there was some kind of motivation within the piece for me to move. It’s minimal and formal, but I try to make it plausible within the piece so it has both artificiality and casualness. I have a problem with dance—to do with gratuitous movement. If there’s a reason within the structure that’s fine, but presuming this movement is, for me, unsatisfactory.

AF Did you have any kind of physical training, then?

GS I did karate rather a lot when I was at college.

AF Aha.

GS And I suppose that gave me physical discipline, but I don’t use that within the performance. I almost want to be emblematic in the performance. I become an object, a kind of storyteller object.

AF Would you say you parody certain popular story models?

GS Not parody, but certainly look at. I look at lots of popular films, TV, and draw on them. I look for the motives behind them. How a particular kind of horror film at a certain time reflects something about the way people were thinking then, or a certain kind of sci fi.

AF What about the visual arts as an influence on your work?

GS Yes, I suppose I would describe the work as a kind of sculptural hybrid, but I suppose I look mainly at paintings. I’ll look anywhere. There’s a particular kind of baroqueness about what I do. I don’t know about that. One thing I can say about the Baroque is the staginess of it and the conspicuous set-up that then tells a story. The staging is something I like. I have been described as someone with a minimal sensibility but a baroque imagination. These two collide. The actual physicalness of the staging resists the baroqueness. The baroque imagination exists almost as a web that ties up the minimal matter. One of the ways I think the work has been mis-read is to think that what I’m doing is somehow dealing with paranoia. One shouldn’t read a mind specifically into the performers as if they were portraying people themselves. One is talking about “mind” in terms of the whole structure. One should be reading my mind as the maker of the structure. And it is a metaphor for a particular kind of mental activity.

AF In your physical expression you remind me of Alfred Hitchcock, with whom you also share a kind of perverse humor. And you’re both from the East End of London.

GS Yes, Leytonstoners. Lots of artists live in Leytonstone now, but not many of them were born there. It’s quite funny. I have only recently thought about Hitchcock, but I do feel a strong affinity with his work. I suppose one of the things I have in common with him is not so much a stylistic similarity but more a similarity of approach. Except, if you want to include as a stylistic feature, his combination of both formalism and plausibility. I think he starts off with a general idea, like fear, and then expands that. The characters are subordinate to that idea. That’s very much how I begin work. One of the things, I suppose, that marks Hitchcock is the idea of suspense. And one of the things I do in inventing a “situation” is examine it for the kind of possibilities that would threaten that world. There’s always this constant reminder that it could collapse. Hitchcock threatens his inventions through the use of narrative and suspense. They’re always in danger. And although the result is very different, I think the motives behind wanting to threaten are very similar. He’s very much a puppetmaster, almost disinterested in the characters. I should say, a conspicuous puppetmaster. And that, too, is something I like. One is on the stage being used in a particular way. An ego shouldn’t be projected too much onto the actual performers, and I think that’s true in both Hitchcock and the things I do.

AF In a certain abstraction of the setting and in the dislocation of the characters within it, I’m also reminded of Beckett.

GS One thing I have in common with him is his use of references to vaudeville and comedy. I think there’s a needed review of that early comic tradition because a particular kind of—expression or portrayal of people died when sound film came in. Vaudeville and slapstick comedy weren’t a primitive means of making meaning, they were actually something that could have developed into a sophisticated structure. The fact that they didn’t is a real shame. There’s a danger in using slapstick, though, because it’s terribly easy to do and it could all become terribly slight.

AF Are you afraid of being too funny?

GS I am afraid of being too funny. I would be deeply suspicious if the laughter were too easy. I like it when one doesn’t know whether to laugh or not, there’s a tension. It implicates the audience. I don’t like the whole idea that comedy is light entertainment and I’ll fight for it to be challenging theatre. In my work there is no gag, no punch line so I find that people laugh at different moments. I like that.

AF Who is your audience?

GS That’s a very interesting question. I think if you are making something in a different way, not only are you faced with how to make it, but you have the reciprocal problem of how to look at it. So as you solve the problem of the work you have to bring an audience with you. To look at the work intelligently they have to look at it differently from the way they look at lots of other theatre work. There’s bound to be a kind of awkwardness there. On the whole I have two kinds of audiences, or maybe three. One is a fringe theatre audience. Another is the audience for appearances at art galleries. The other audience is friends, really, across the cultural board. Institutionally these audiences are quite separate and don’t really speak to one another. I don’t quite know what to do about it.

AF Do you feel you exist within any kind of theatre community?

GS In a sense I do. My association with Station House Opera, who I work with and am very close to. And also other people I know from “visual theatre” backgrounds, like ex-Impact theatre people. I don’t feel like I’m part of a movement. I feel quite often that I’m working quite differently from everyone else. It’s not clear enough to me that it’s a rebellion against or sympathizing with or learning from. There are certainly things about “visual theatre” that I would never do. The kinds of things I oppose myself to are theatrical effects. For me a piece has to work as a complex object. It’s important to me that I’m surrounded by very interesting artists, but in fact, I prefer those artists to be working in quite different ways from me, even in different media. And I’d much rather be outside any supporting structure that could isolate and protect me.

AF In If the Cap Fits there’s a reference to accents as identifying the performers’ class status.

GS I have a working-class accent, and my co-performer Caroline Wilkinson has a middle-class accent. We did an early version of the piece and made no reference to it at all, but it seemed it needed a reference. And I quite like acknowledging that I’m working class without making it a selling point. I think it’s far more contentious to say that class is not an issue, in Britain, anyway. It’s more challenging, I think, to ask people not to make it an issue. Quite often what I might do is just point to a particular characteristic that an object has. And when I’m onstage, I am one of those objects and my accent is an aspect of myself as an object.

In The Deep Bosom Of The Ocean Buried by Sarah-Jane Stratford
Lawrence Michael Levine by Gary M. Kramer
Lawrence Levine 1

The fine art of the romantic-comedy-thriller-mystery.

Martha Stephens by Steve Macfarlane
Martha Stephens 01

Directing a comedic travelogue set in Iceland.

Scott Shepherd by Richard Maxwell
Scott Shepherd 1

I have seen Scott Shepherd perform many times as a core member in two of my favorite New York theater companies—Elevator Repair Service and The Wooster Group.

Originally published in

BOMB 22, Winter 1988

Robert Mapplethorpe by Gary Indiana, Nancy Lemann, Mike Kelley, Gary Stevens, Gleb Panfilov, Brice Marden by Saul Ostrow, and Rose English.

Read the issue
022 Winter 1988