Dramaturgy in Dialogue: Tom Marshman

Interview with Tom Marshman, Bristol-based live artist. I worked with Tom as an outside eye on his new performance, Legs 11.

What does the idea of an ‘outside eye’ mean to you?

Tom: For me, when I’m making work, the question is ‘What is this communicating to you?’. If I show you this, is this what it is communicating? Often something will happen when I miss a story. The narrative in this gay and lesbian show I did recently was that someone had been diagnosed with HIV and then had a motorbike accident. He talks about this accident being a  good thing because it helps him come to terms with his HIV status. HIV has helped him. It’s an enabler. It’s helped him form more friendships, more romantic interest. I was showing someone else this and they were debating whether it could be misconstrued. When I work with other people’s stories, it feels connected to working on my own. When I work on these gay and lesbian shows, I use my own stories too, I’m connected to this somehow, I try to be part of the somehow. The same could be said of a very personal show likes Legs 11, there are moments where I am in the sleeping bag telling a story, and someone has said to me ‘You’ve become a Geisha girl’, or like you talked about how I am coming out of the chrysalis. The outside eye helps you to tease that out or maybe makes you think about whether you want it to do that.

So would you say the dramaturg or the ‘outside eye’ shows you what you are doing that you did not know you were doing?

Tom: Maybe this idea of a dramaturg isn’t such an appealing notion to because of where it comes from, somewhere more traditional and text-based. I say ‘outside eye’ because it sits more comfortably with me and my work. On Legs 11, I wanted to work with different artists. I worked with Bryony Kimmings to see how the audience is involved in the work. I worked with you to look at the structure, my structure is always quite loose and I wanted help to shape an argument. Mamoru Iriguchi came in to look at the technology and visuals and Neil Bartlett is my professional mentor at the moment.

It seems a different model, inviting lots of people into the process

Tom: It’s helpful because I want my work to communicate lots of things, my work sits in different areas, I can place my work in a cabaret context or in a much more serious live art context and it will be fine, although some people have disputed that. Neil Bartlett has been mentoring me for a year, he has shaped how that project has gone conceptually, the process, so it felt like it was quite important for him to see the actual work. He has given me lots of ideas about how to shape the show. How to segue different moments into each other. With that Legs 11 show, what I enjoyed about it was that I made different bits for different times, different events, different contexts. I made a song and dance number that works on a Queer level. Some text for a lo-fi spoken word event. Consequence is that you end up with a jumble sale of performance. Other people were really helping with that. I think that I need encouragement to make my work be personal, because I’m always worried that it’s too personal, part of that role is encouragement, you could say my work is self-indulgent and it is, but is there anything wrong with that? I really like personal work but you have to step over a comfort threshold. You’re in a rehearsal room, you’re going to be surrounded by people in a rehearsal room, and sometimes it helps for them to reassure you about what you are making.

You asked me to ‘be sensitive’ to the fact that there were some things you couldn’t change at that stage. How do you define the relationship?

Tom: In Luton, there is no one I can ask, so here I have been asking the participants. I have invited them into the room and they end up talking about themselves for ages. I just feel that it helps to have someone in the room. Smooth over some of the awkward bits. It still maintains the sense of the autobiographical, not adding any of the content because it all comes from you.

Have you ever played the role of ‘outside eye’?

Tom: I responded to work quite emotionally, how it made me feel etc. I have also sat in people’s work much earlier on and given them suggestions about what they perhaps should be rehearsing and what films it would help to watch.

Is the role of an outside eye a luxury or essential?

Tom: I am thinking about this a lot at the moment. I procrastinate so having an outside eye makes me work and it makes me work quicker. I know I can do it without one, I just don’t think it would be as tidy. I know how I make work, but it would be like vomiting on the stage. All the bits are there. But not necessarily in the right place or in the right order. I think there’s something about being dyspraxic, I’m clumsy, I do things wrong. An outside eye, a dramaturg, will never be able to change that. That’s who I am. That’s always a way of communicating something, I can’t help that. But maybe they can help me put the work together.

Some people describe the dramaturg as midwife, mechanic, weaver

Tom: It is like sewing. I like working with sound and video artists because when I watch them work it is like sewing film and sound together. I love being able to steer something in a different direction, a surprising direction. What I do is a little bit like that. I sew material together and the ‘outside eye’ can help with that.

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