Doin’ Dirt Time

In early November 2013 we were visited by Fern Smith and Philip Ralph for Doin’ Dirt Time performance and residency. 

doin dirt time

Ar eh, da was boss da…” A weekend at the Institute by Phil and Fern

Doin Dirt Time by Suzi Gablik from her book, Conversations At The End Of Time.
Recorded at her home in Blacksburg, July 20th 1992.
In conversation with Rachel Dutton and Rob Olds.
Performed at the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home, 7.30pm, Saturday 2nd November 2013.
Gary Anderson was guest Suzi Gablik, Fern Smith was Rachel Dutton, Philip Ralph was Rob Olds.

Former fears put in their place, emerging from the car on a wet and windy Everton evening, to be greeted by a whirlwind of sound and fury signifying… everything. Boys and dogs, people and hugs, smiles and laughter. A walk in a park where the streets used to have names and now are memories inside memories. The highest point in Liverpool and the shadow of a river that cannot be walked. Home to lessons in speaking dog and a journey through bad accents before boys and dogs hit the sack and adults breathed a little easier. Curled up on cushions, meetings and greetings, sharings and learnings. Art breathing in the spaces between us all, human and animal, child and man, dog and unborn baby. Asleep to the hum of Liverpool buzzing behind the walls.

Up and out into Everton Park for round two. What was all shadows now in the light, the loss and the history writ large on plaques as we walked. The dogs grazing on discarded food as we humans grazed on discarded streets. Home to breakfast twice on rye biscuits and cheese. More sharing, hearing and learning. Inspiration – the breathing kind and the growing kind – coming at us thick and fast in this home where all is art and art is all. The wild and windy weather notwithstanding, an excursion was a must, despite the siren call of the X-Box. So, into the car we eight – three adults, three kids, two dogs – and off to Crosby Beach. No sign of Bing but many, many Antonys, resplendent and rusting, facing out to sea, naked and unashamed. We disparaged his manhood, made him wear hats and scarves and ran around his many forms. Dogs exercised the kids and vice versa. And always talk and thought and stimulation. The effects of violence in GTA 5 dissected with grace and economy by Neal. The nature of God in all his godliness picked apart by Sid. Gabriel saw all and smiled. Almost defeated by the roaring wind and blown to Morecambe Bay, we retired to the hallowed streets of Anfield and in the shadow of the Temple of Phil’s distant cousin Bob, we munched on co-operative scones. Or is it scones? Or even scones? A place of meeting for humans and dogs with all forms of flour and fat. A warm haven of community in once abandoned streets. Then home to the comparative calm of the warm frontroom for X-Box and Walliams and homework. The adults pretended to be present but dozed with their eyes open…

And then to the main event. The art of the moment. Even though there was no dividing line, no liminal space of them and us. Discussion dictated the decision and the dining room was deemed the designated diocese for Doin Dirt Time. Table became circle, floor became stalls and the guest artist had their five minute opportunity to grasp the task. Then a window of time to panic in. A half hour of indecision and doubt. Then – pandemonium. A whirring banshee wail of arms and legs, faces and dresses, hair and eyes. A split second decision to placate with sugar and crisps and… “Three, two, one, play.” The ‘pl’ of the play – and we were off. A twenty year old meeting became living flesh again in a small dining room in Everton. The witnesses had widely varied responses – silence, fidgeting, crunching of crisps. Fighting for their space, distracting, moving, processing, hearing,leaving, coming, staying. Thirty minutes of two people who stood on the edge of their lives… and jumped off. Because they had to. Because they could see no other way. Because the earth is dying and that was – and is – their response. To retreat and now to return. To see the tattered veil and see through it. To question. To doubt. To choose another path.

In the aftermath, as headphones were removed, two explosions of a different kind. Sugar and MSG bursting through young skin. Questions and ideas bursting from adult minds. An hour or two of mixing and moulding, meeting and retreating, hide and seeking. Combat of the body and the mind lead to a place of seeing and understanding, sharing and being. Hugs and warmth ended the night and we parted ways once more. Stimulation peeking and overflowing until the tide receded and dogs could return to the space to sniff the corners and feel the memories of what took place. And then four adults, two dogs and one unborn baby continued to pick at the flotsam and jetsam, understanding and laughing and listening. A perfect end to an impossibly perfect day of unpredictable shifts and moments. The fall into real satisfied sleep. The cushions never felt so warm and welcoming. Dogs standing sentinel, too tired to dream…

And then morning once more and Sid was up before us all, he needed a walk and we were happy to oblige. Betty walked Sid and Jaffa walked Gabriel and Everton Park welcomed us one last time into its blustery, blowy squall. Then home to breakfast, debriefs and goodbyes. The energy of the visit now in ebb rather than flow. The tide had come in and nearly washed us away but we had stood, steadfast in its howling, clinging to the railings and laughing at the cold snap of its white water in our faces. And now, it was time to depart. One last spike of energy, one last tentative nip or two from Jaffa, a photo or two to remind us all that we were here, a book from the library – Edgy Cities, how appropriate – and we were gone.

In our wake? Warmth. Brightness. Laughter. Joy. Disquiet. Community. All is possible. Nothing is wasted. People are amazing, infuriating, joyous and appalling. The Institute is inspiration, like breathing, like oxygen, like ideas, like idealism. The ebb and flow of it. The push and pull. Like white water rafting without a raft. Like waking up in a washing machine. We came out the other side, cleaner, whiter, shaken up, spun and dried. We want to return and so do the dogs. But we also want to relish and savour, to process and chew. We are in love and in awe.

A hour later, we met our friends to drive them home to mid-Wales. They looked at our faces. “Blimey, what happened to you?” We smiled and laughed. Too much to explain…

kids with dogs lena gary 1

Doin’ Dirt Time by Gary

I wanted Sid my six year old son, head of research at the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home, to do it and sent an email to Fern requesting so, claiming she’d collaborated with my other two sons for Emergence at various points and now it was Sid’s turn. The weekend before Fern and Phil arrived Jane Trowell was here and we got talking a little about what Doin’ Dirt Time was. Jane had seen it in Hastings. ‘Who’s playing Suzi?’ she asked with a slightly troubled look. ‘Me,’ says I, ‘but don’t tell me anything about it. Apparently there’s quick fire questions, so Sid mightn’t be ideal. Suppose I’ll do it. ‘Tsup to them really.’ Jane looks through me the way people look through you when they know something you don’t. ‘I’ve got to tell Fern and Phil that story about Suzi, I totally lforgot about it in Hastings’. Jane told me nothing else about the project.

OK. Quick fire questions. I’ll just make sure I don’t have a beer before they start the show, then I’ll be fine. So they’ll probably want me to invent quick fire questions or something in response to whatever they are up to. I pump myself up artificially. I’ve done some of this experimental theatre malarky in the past, no need to stress. Leave Sid out of it. I wonder if I should go the bathroom and secretly rehearse some quick fire questions?

I’d asked Fern could if it be for families, y’know, would it add anything to the mix if this show were based in a council house in Everton, Liverpool (the home of the Institute) with only families invited as audience? Fern and Phil, as open and trusting as their delightful Jack Russells Betty and Jaffa, thought it would be an interesting set-up. Half and hour before the show Fern and Phil take me into the back room at the Institute and pull out lots of earphones with mp3 players. ‘Let’s have a five minute rehearsal!’ says Phil untangling the wires. I can’t quite form a question except something like ‘WTF are they going to do?’ or ‘is this some conceptual shit where people watch us listening to music they can’t hear?’ The next thing I know there’s Phil counting down from 3 in front of an audience ranging from 4 year olds to 40 somethings, from three continents of the planet, all making their way noisily through packets of Monster Munch crisps that Fern had handed out a minute before. The younger ones, sitting neatly together, cross legged, like in school, but with loads of crisps and sweets, are staring at the three of us sitting right up against the window, me half hid by a yuka yuka plant rammed into the corner of the small room to fit everyone in, who have started talking to each other about the end of the world.

For me it’s shear panic though. The first and last thought is something confused, like this:
‘don’t muck it up for Fern and Phil, they came a long way yesterday, with their dogs, who are currently in the boot of their car coz Jaffa, a rescue dog, might nip one of kids, now they are taking all of this very seriously and not only are they honouring our little house, our Institute with their work, they’ve agreed to do it for local families, even though those families are from Gambia and North America, so I better not let them down, even though they probably expect a dropped line or two given the nature of things and of the piece, and I mustn’t try too hard, or be to actor-y or do it ‘too well’, mustn’t deliberately change the emphasis of a question to make it sound spontaneous, everyone can see I’m listening to it too, must try to listen and enjoy the piece at the same time though, but whooosh, one of the kids has got up and left and I’m still looking at Fern trying to guess when she will stop answering this question and it’ll be my turn again, I’ll have to do that man Patrick doing Suzi in my ear, and the plant has drooped a little over my face and now Phil is laughing at something, like corpsing, Fern also notices, and now I’ve got a really big bit to say and Phil can’t look at me coz he’s going to start laughing properly, so he looks at the floor, then I’m looking at Fern and she looks away with a smile at the corner of her mouth but covered over with some actors experience or something, are they laughing at me? Am I doing it wrong? It must be this plant, it must look like a funny hat on my head or something, now the children have started bustling around the room, and that one who went out has come back in and is now sitting with his Dad who is listening really carefully with a big smile across his face, but I turn to look at Phil who tells me with a little nod that that lag in speech was supposed to be my bit, so I catch up as best I can and ask another question, with what feels like a hundred mini pauses and stammering and can’t quite equate the sound of my voice with the audience reaction, it’s all out of kilter, and I’m hearing what Patrick is saying a little bit too early, coz I pressed play when Phil said ‘Pl’, this is putting me at a sightly unfair advantage I reckon, well, whatever, as long as the people listening have a good conversation afterwards, that’s what it’s all about isn’t it, a conversation afterwards, yes, will there be a conversation afterwards? jesus, how long is this thing going to last and when will Suzi stop asking these bloody questions…’

We talked for hours afterwards, everyone, the kids, the groan-ups. Me and Phil shared a post performance beer – that felt good. Fern, atop of the table we pushed to the side to let the audience in, was responding carefully, compassionately to the questions put to her. What started off as a more or less safe review of the themes raised in Doin’ Dirt Time, turned into a real conversation, warm and health, human. It was bliss to get Patrick’s Suzi out of my ear though and re-join people where they speak and listen in familiar time, not with this intolerable lag in communication.

When everyone left we let Jaffa and Betty back in. Our kids had a conversation with them before they all went off to their sleeping spaces. No lags in communication there, just a slow-growing love for each other. For the kids this was the best Institute residency ever – I can hear them saying so in my ear, over and over again and I repeat it with them, this was the best Institute residency ever.