Conversation: Source Magazine, June 2017

Conversation with actor and Theatre Maker Angela Clerkin, June 2017 for Source Magazine. July 2017 re The Lisa and John Slideshow

The Lisa and John Project updates an archive of David Moore’s documentary photography work from 1988 titled Pictures from the Real World.[published in 2013] Actor and Writer Angela Clerkin, talks to David about his recent foray into the theatre world.

AC
Your theatre show The Lisa and John Slideshow, was first shown at Format International Photography Festival in 2017, at Derby Theatre. How did it come about that a documentary photographer and university lecturer made a theatre show?

DM
For me it’s the theatre show, the set models and there is an installation proposal as well – they are all part of the same project. We met Huw Davis who is on the Board of QUAD Arts in Derby, they run the Format Festival, and he offered me the theatre space without even seeing the script. That focused us around a very specific event, which was brilliant. I love the notion of somehow changing what photography can be. I’m interested in performance in photography and what I mean by that is the way a subject might perform in a documentary photograph and how that contributes to the pantomime of realism. And the whole project is an archive intervention.

AC
Your original documentary photographs were of working class communities in Derby and were since been printed in the collection Picture From the Real World in 2013. Tell me how it all started.

DM
I made this work when I was a student in 1987/1988 and it is full of youthful energy. Very much me finding my way as a photographer and being excited by the medium. There is always a difficult patch between those sorts of approaches and emotions and the subject matter, particularly if we are talking about documentary subject matter where working class families are being represented. My own background wasn’t like this or the people that I am representing here, but I lived close to this estate. So, I have always been aware of that, and whilst the work has a validity as a subjective document, it is also problematic because of the dynamics and dialectics of production , the representation and so on.. I have made work since then about government and institutional power

AC
When and where did you get the idea of making a theatre show?

DM
Lisa contacted me on Twitter, that is actually a line in the play, and I went to meet her after twenty five years. It just sort of came to me to challenge the authority and hegemony of the documentary legacies that I was working within and that were perpetuating in my work. One thing I could do was offer Lisa and John their own choice from the archive. So, we see the archive as a contestable space, basically this is my view, this is theirs. So I left the archive with Lisa and John.

AC
When you gave them the archive did you know you were going to make a show?

DM
No, I had no idea. At that time I was thinking of another book, an installation and possibly a photographic exhibition. I didn’t think about any sort of performance until we got to the end of the process. I had left the contact prints with them for three or four months and I went back and sat with both of them while they went through their choices. We talked about their memories, about their kids, all the stuff that had nothing to do with my agenda whatsoever.
My first thoughts were, if we are looking at various movements and histories within participatory practice as a fine art movement there is potential for Lisa and John, if they are willing, to be involved in presenting this in public. We would be articulating and opening up what the archive can be, instead of it being a fixed point in of representation, which is always going to be a mixture of history and fiction anyway.

Straight away, To have Lisa and john actually talking about the archive activates a different discourse, and in essence is democratising, not fully but as a gesture. I said ‘John would you be interested in talking about this in public, in some sort of supported environment?’ and he said: “Fuck off.” Lisa said, no, no way. So then I thought I could use this, I could create another representational tableau by working with actors based on the conversations I had with both Lisa and John, and that is partly what fuelled the script.

AC
Did you record those initial conversations?

DM
Yes process is integral to the work so it is important to make sure everything was documented. It was a very organic process. I worked with an assistant director and theatre facilitator called Gavin Dent I had this grand concept and Gavin was really good at coming in and activating those ideas theatrically. So the basis at the beginning was to work with the verbatim script that I had written. Writing a verbatim script adds a certain license to occasionally divert from what is actually being said and to make it theatrically relevant if you like.

AC
In my experience some verbatim scripts use the interviews as a starting point, while others are meticulous in only using the words spoken by the interviewees. I recently worked with Chris Goode & Co in a verbatim show called Monkey Bars and the author was adamant that we stick faithfully to the interviewees exact words, even when it meant saying the word ‘like’ five times in a sentence.

DM
I’m interested in this. I’d imagine Lisa and John will have other outings, in Belfast for example. I am also thinking about how I develop it. The temptation is to keep tinkering with this show but that’s it now, I’m drawing a line. So for the next work that I make, I’m interested in that sort of absolute methodology that you’ve just described.

AC
In addition to the taped interviews how else did you develop the material for the show.

DM
The first version of this script was pretty spot on in terms of the translation from the audio, so to do character development at the beginning we used various improvisational games. I gave the actors Sarah and Alan, lots of information, I talked about Lisa and John back in 1988, and my more recent knowledge of them having spent a little bit of time with Lisa and John in the months preceding rehearsals. From those improvisational games came one or two things that sat quite comfortably with who Lisa and John were as far as I was concerned, so it is a blend of methodologies. Also both actors went to Derby to meet Lisa and John as part of the process.

AC
How did you as the author decide what material from the interviews to include, how much invented dialogue felt right, and what to edit out? I’m also interested to know if Lisa and John were given script approval?

DM
Obviously script approval was a very big thing. The process itself is underpinned by a facilitatory gesture, everything about it. It’s present all the way through it, this critique, this questioning of my motivations. Also in the script, I have isolated playful questions about realism for example, at one point Lisa criticises me for wanting to use a photograph with ashtrays in it, she is basically saying – ‘I know what you are up to David’

Lisa and John were given a script and I sought approval before we went forward. I sat with them, went through it. Had we have been in the same city then the collaborative possibilities would have been greater. They would have been involved much more with rehearsals and that would have taken us in a different direction. It’s an interesting area and it’s useful talking and thinking about this. So I’d say to rely upon and ones own moral position can be a guiding light.

AC
One of my favourite parts of the show is when Lisa is looking at the final photograph that she chose and she says, “We never liked having our photo taken, but I like this one, all of us smoking, everyone smoked. We smoked so much, it will catch up with us one day. We do charity seances sometimes, something always happens, Craig (her current partner) says the smoke in these pictures is the spirits coming through.” I also really love that photograph, and the text you use in the script with it, I felt the intimacy you had with the family really shone through. So it was quite surprising to hear Lisa saying they didn’t like having their photos taken. You included these comments in the show and I wondered what you thought about what she said?

DM
That was her being faux modest. I carried it through really because there is a really nice picture of Lisa in the slideshow. It’s of her coming in with a cake, she looks really nice and she says ‘that this is quite a nice one of me’ but then she doesn’t really say anymore about it. She flicks through really quickly so I honoured her observation in a sense. John can’t remember me being there anyway.

AC
How did that make you feel?

DM
Surprised actually, I didn’t take it personally or anything like that. It’s true he was there, he was working nights a lot of the time but I was in his face a lot, you know with the flash. I made this work between July ’87 and May ’88 but I worked with other families on the estate as well so I wasn’t there all the time. I was probably in their house twenty or thirty times.

AC
So tell me about a photograph in the show that does have a strong memory for you.

DM
The photographs in the show are Lisa and John’s choices. It was interesting when I edited this book as a separate thing I had this idea of having my arm around my younger self, kind of it’s ok to use that, but you have to change this one. There were two or three pictures that were chosen by Lisa that I’d also chosen as an edit for the book that didn’t quite make it. So there’s interesting crossovers like that but I think for me now the act and purpose of a single image and engaging with it, I don’t feel that’s my sort of thing now. That’s more theirs. For me it is the mass of work, the archive work which is the interesting body of work.

AC
What would you describe as being the main themes that run through The Lisa and John Slideshow?

DM
Themes in the theatre show that arose are death, memory, family, all of those things. There is this idea that memory exists in the present and this notion got carried into the theatre script. The idea of memory is made more complex by John’s inability to recall any of the photos being taken. He says that these photographs are his memories now. Again we need to consider that photographs mean different things to different people. There is a conflict that can occur when one looks back at images and misunderstands or misremembers.

There is a picture of Lisa’s sister and in the play Lisa and John have a dialogue which I had to invent and this made us shift into a ‘devised ‘ mode of making theatre, so, from improvisation and the actors having a sense of Lisa and John’s relationship. This was because they are divorced now and had not met for years. I was going between the two of them saying ‘I don’t want to get involved with this’ but, Lisa says, “That’s never our Lisa”, and John saying “She fucking is Lisa”.

There’s themes of death right through too of course which are obviously born from Karen ( a close family friend who appears in the images) dying and how that affected the family, fifteen years on it is still very deeply felt for both of them. I remember Karen, she was a very bright woman. Of course the theme of death is also conveyed in Lisa’s observations about seances and smoking. That was something that presented itself to me as a writer, as a narrative device that was relevant and important.

Also I recognise that while I am offering Lisa and John a sort of facilitatory space to talk about the way I represented them, actually their choice is restricted. It’s not all about them, what they are doing is responding to my work, so it’s like a Hobson’s Choice in some ways. That has to be acknowledged.

AC
You appear in the text, as the photographer and author, tell me a little about your decision to include yourself inside the frame of the show?

DM
Part of the opening up and the intervention into hierarchies of representation is about visibility and revealing the underlying mechanics, via a variety of strategies. I have lines in the play as myself, but I’m in the audience, so it is a clear disturbance of the narrative, a potential reframing for the audience as to what it is that is being observed. That’s the Brechtian aspect we talked about.

I love doing it as well!

The models are the same because their currency, the discourse of the maquettes, is the production of the photograph, using a museological vernacular… a museum diorama so there are all sorts of connections with institutional knowledge being addressed in a complex manner.

AC
The set of The Lisa and John Slideshow was minimal and presentational – tell me why you made this choice and how it speaks to the piece?

DM
I think it came out of the initial idea of Lisa and John doing it themselves in this lecture style format. Chairs, a table, a beaker of water and a facility to project the photographs. I’m also drawing from my own experience of being an academic who delivers lectures to groups of students as well, that idea of presenting photographs and talking about them.

AC
Your decision to make it a live event. Was that important to you?

DM
What I have realised is that the whole project, the installation, the maquettes and the theatre show, they are all things that one has to experience by being there. You can look at them on a screen but this work is about being physically present. I didn’t consciously do that but it’s a sort of post photographic gesture if you like. Take the models, you can walk around them and peer at them, look at them from above and observe their detail. Through this gesture You one can scrutinise the process of the photographic event in a way that a photographer might scrutinise their subjects.

AC
The installation is called “Lisa and John – Oh My Days!”, and was also shown at Format. I’m looking at the fantastically detailed maquettes in front of me, scaled set models of two of your photographs with the photographer at the scene. Can you tell me more about them?

DM
The idea of this is to place the photographer at the scene, by specifically connecting the maquettes with specific photographs in the original series.

Alan Sekula, a writer on photography documentary makers, said “A truly critical social documentary will frame the crime, the trial and the system of justice and it’s official myths.” So that is an indicator of my intent with the whole Lisa and John project. To challenge the 2D nature of photography is to offer a multi-perspectivism that allows audience agency to explore the photographic event from positions of their choosing. The models perform this.

So, to walk around the object and to never quite experience the whole thing at one time perhaps, being free of the singular proposition of the original photograph. So you can see the breaking of hierarchy there. I, as photographer, am also part of this secondary inquiry. The photography is part of an inquiry. So this draws on ideological histories of installation practice and offers another route to exploring the archive outside of its own context.

AC
What of the maquettes themselves?

DM
Gavin Dent and I interviewed several people for this commission. You can see my Dr. Martin soles! That’s the camera I had and that’s the flash gun I had! We chose Beth Brett because of her attention to detail.

But what is interesting is that I am having trouble photographing these myself, even as a straight document , so to speak, they are not designed to be photographed.

AC
Because they are designed to be experienced?

DM
Yes, what you are doing now, peering from different directions and enjoying the detail. This is quite cheeky, this newspaper is from another photograph in the series, but I like the fact that she has brought it into the ‘wrong’ photographic scene.

AC
So tell me about your positioning in the scene, did you have a clear recollection or you can tell from the photograph where you were exactly?

DM
All of those things and I used the original photographs to work from. I have these wonderful sketches that I made. Sketching from memory partially, filling in the rest of the room and of course I had other areas in the room from other photographs that filled in the gaps.

AC
You’ve talked of you plans to create further maquettes, do you know which photographs you are going to use?

DM
I think it depends on how many we can do next really, obviously it’s a funding thing. I might stray outside of Lisa and Johns family to do another one. The photograph with the newspaper is good, also the baby in the garden, and also one of the most popular photographs from the series is the one of John fixing the car, at the end of the book.

AC
John fixing the car is one of my favourite photographs, and him talking about getting stuck in the boot was one of my favourite parts of the show. Have John and Lisa seen the maquettes?

DM
No, their kids have. They loved seeing them

AC
Looking at this body of work, is it what you want it to be, have you achieved what you were after?

DM
Yes, I have actually. I feel really pleased with it, partly because people enjoyed it. I like populism and I think you can offer populism with a very complex and well intended intellectual grounding. In that sense I am trying to make work here which speaks to lots of people but at its heart has this, the grist for the mill if you like, is the oppositional view…breaking the momentum of various legacies and offering differing ways of understanding the world. So yes, I’m pleased with it.