Published in The Stage October 27, 2021
The theatre critic’s job is largely conducted in darkness and silence: we watch other people perform from the gloom of the stalls, and then write about it. But last Saturday, the spotlight – and the microphone – was quite literally turned on me, as I was grilled about my job in front of an audience on stage at Leeds Playhouse.
I was one of 32 ordinary people invited to do a ‘shift’ in Quarantine’s show 12 Last Songs. A 12-hour performance from midday to midnight, it formed a living portrait – or a lively shopfront, perhaps – showcasing a huge range of different jobs and different people.
In the morning, coffee grinders made the audience a brew; in the evening, a chef cooked them dinner. A hairdresser gave a client box braids; a nursery worker looked after children in a blow-up ball pit. An occupational therapist described working with long-Covid patients; a portrait artist painted a couple, posed nude on stage.
And while they worked, they answered questions – about their work and their lives – from one of three actors shepherding us through the day. Mine may have been the most ‘meta’ shift: talking about my job – writing about theatre – while sitting in an audience, so I could do my job, writing this piece about this theatre work. But many questions went deep: later, in what sounds like the set-up for a joke, a vicar, an architect and a drone pilot discussed what they hoped to leave behind when they died.
Quarantine began working on 12 Last Songs several years ago, in a moment defined by divisions sown by Donald Trump and Brexit. “I felt it would be a useful thing to get people who wouldn’t normally share the same space together,” says company co-founder Richard Gregory.
“But how do you persuade people to come into a room – particularly a theatre room – who might not normally set foot in that kind of space? Particularly if what you want to hear is who they are, what their beliefs and views are? How do you do that without actually putting off the people you most want to hear from?”
“Work” was the answer. “A good way of identifying a broad set of people is to think about the kinds of labour people do,” says Gregory.
But if getting people to talk about their jobs was initially something of a Trojan Horse, it quickly became fascinating in its own right – not least once the pandemic made questions of how and where people work, and how that work might (or might not) be helpful to society, take on fresh pertinence.
“Lockdown shifted our focus. I spent a lot of time thinking: ‘Why do I do what I do?’ ” says Gregory. “And there was a time when we applauded work that we’ve previously not paid much attention to.”
Work proved so interesting that a regular 90-minute show couldn’t cut it. Having previously made a 12-hour piece about dancing, Quarantine decided to repeat the trick. “We loved that sense of scale: you give space to the everyday and the banal, and a sense of time passing.”
The audience for 12 Last Songs could come and go throughout the day, and sat around the edge of the performance space. A script of 670 pre-prepared questions gave the show a framework to be improvised around. These included work-related questions – How do you get to work? How much do you earn? – as well as more revealing, existential prompts: Do you have enough friends? Who do you love, and how do you know? How does this end?
No one who took part (myself included) knew what we were going to be asked, meaning responses had an unfiltered, on-the-spot honesty. It also meant they could indeed be banal – plenty of awkward dead ends and “I don’t remember” answers. But the very uncertainty proved addictive: it was tantalising to hear what people were willing to reveal.
Getting into the practical details of people’s work proved illuminating, too. Watching a dog groomer – trimming the real star of the show, Luna the Maltese – compare tools with a plumber was unexpectedly fascinating: he demonstrated a nifty gadget for cutting copper piping, while she showed off £300 fur scissors.
I spoke to them afterwards about the experience of being on stage – a first, for both, and they confessed to being nervous. “I was mainly worrying if the dog was going to behave. Actually, she was better behaved than she ever is at home – she was showing off,” laughed Hailey Watson. “But I really enjoyed the chance to tell people what I do, and I was listening to everything [other people] were saying too. The answers were really interesting.”
Barry Maynard, the plumber, agreed. “We take life for granted, that’s what we do. I was listening to a midwife, and even though I’ve been at the births of my kids, to get the perspective from the actual person doing the actual job – it’s second to none, I’d say.”
I’d agree. While I’m not sure how enlightening my perspective on arts journalism was, hearing others discuss everything from the best way to make a coffee to how to counsel grieving relatives to how to raise children proved endlessly surprising – and often moving. It’s a reminder that all lives are extraordinary in their ordinariness.
12 Songs is part of the Transform 21-22 festival. For more information visit transformfestival.org