In my workshops I usually direct an exercise which is a slow motion banquet (after Berkoff’s Salome). Sometimes that exercise goes to a third take and the students are required to improvise a spoken story while listening to music, and I usually use this haunting track by Harold Budd.
After Berkoff saw me performing his story Master of Cafe Society at the Young Vic as part of my triple bill Stunning the Punters in 1990, he gave me the manuscript of his (then) unpublished short story Hell, which instantly prompted a vision of staging it naked in a dim red light with a mournful cello playing and clouds of smoke and dry ice. The smoke and dry ice never happened, but the rest of my vision was realised, and here’s how…
In the winter of 1991 I was trapped in a desperate personal nightmare. My flat had been turned into a building site and the dust was giving me flu-like symptoms, preventing me from visiting my father who was in a terminal cancer ward. The situation in my flat lasted for several months. My father didn’t. One day in the middle of this torment, I walked into a shop and I heard this music playing which sounded just like what was playing in my head. The shop assistant told me it was from By the Dawn’s Early Light by Harold Budd. I immediately went to the nearest record store and bought it, and then dropped everything and plunged myself into a therapeutic creative frenzy, spending the next three days fitting the words of Berkoff’s story to the music (or vice versa). The particular track I had heard was titled The Photo of Santiago McKinn (a tidy coincidence, since the shop I had been in was a photo shop – one of those high street 1 hour photo development shops you don’t really see anymore) – and is inspired by the photograph of a Caucasian boy who was captured and then brought up by a native American tribe.
Having matched up the whole story to different tracks on the album, and made a recording of it, something like a radio play, I then forgot about it until the next summer, when during a conversation with Steven he suggested I go to Edinburgh at short notice, a crazy idea since the festival programme had been printed months previously and I didn’t have a new show ready. But the previous year I had succeeded with Judgement outside the programme, so I knew that the right show with enough buzz could work and this time, pairing Hell with Say a Prayer for Me (from Berkoff’s first short story collection Gross Intrusions) I had the prospect of a world premiere Berkoff double bill. So the next day I telephoned several venues, and booked myself a mini tour of 8 dates in 4 venues: the Assembly Rooms, the Pleasance, Randolph Studios and Southside.
Say a Prayer for Me was a very physical piece and absorbed most of my available rehearsal time, so when it came to Hell all I could afford to do was learn the lines and work out some very simple moves the night before the opening. At home I had synchronised the text and the music very precisely – 32 minutes of Harold Budd’s music – so the next day I found myself standing backstage, with a full house and four national critics awaiting me, and it suddenly struck me that if I forgot my lines I was in big trouble, as the music would just carry on playing and I couldn’t just gabble until they came back to me or I’d end up totally out of sync. For some reason I was totally calm about this and I have rarely felt stage nerves ever since.
I continued to use the technique of matching pre-existing words and music in all of my subsequent solo shows, the demands of synchronising in performance to a fixed soundtrack reaching their peak in The Gospel of Matthew, in which the whole 90 minute show is one single track!
They marry and produce strange offspring indeed!