Hester Chillingworth: Thinker in Residence

Hester Chillingworth is a solo artist, director of the performance company GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN, and Creative Producer (Participation & Engagement) at Forced Entertainment. As LADA's Thinker in Residence, Hester is exploring issues around Young People, Gender and Live Art, and has written a blog addressing the start of their residency, reflecting on the future of where their research might go, and how their younger self discovered Live Art.


Starting my thinking for this residency on Young People, Gender and Live Art, I’ve had the familiar feelings of realisation of ‘Oh, this has all been done before’ and ‘It’s too big, it’s a mountain, there’s no navigable way through this!’. Both of which are probably, to some extent, true. But neither of which, I remind myself, means this investigation shouldn’t also happen now, in this way. It’s not about solving something, reducing something down to an answer or a formula. If anything it’s about adding – adding thinking, maybe writing, certainly space and conversation around the topics. Adding options and possibilities. Adding perspectives. And, hopefully, adding concrete new offers/ways in/access points to Live Art for young people. Slightly daunted by that, but that’s the mission.


Sitting in the study room on my first day, surrounded by books, pamphlets, articles, magazines, the noise and the silence in my head on this subject met each other like two colliding rocks covered in felt. I was fairly paralysed. The only thoughts I could hold onto were huge, too big, waves of ideology, waves of frustration, waves of indignation. What I had hoped would feel like a cool, carved-out space which I could carefully fill, stack the shelves of, with well-crafted small thoughts that would come together to become well-crafted big thoughts, had instead flooded with feelings. Feelings about childhood, gender, Live Art (all art) – all in relation to me though. I wanted to be thinking bigger, outside myself. But instead I was thinking about how throughout my childhood I was engaged in an all-consuming, ultra-detailed, bewildering-but-enlightening performance of gender. Performance is too pale of a word. It was a deconstruction, a destruction, a reconstruction, a continual rewriting of the binary. I just knew that the binary was a lie (without the language to say that). So the world that appeared not to know that, or to be denying that, was a strange world, to me. Like a world that says, ‘There’s no such thing as swimming’, for example. ‘There is, because I’ve done it! It’s great and I know quite a few people who do it! Look, let me show you, this is swimming!’.

So, when I began to be really interested in theatre (early teens), I soon became angry at what I felt were more lies. Bad acting, is what I’m talking about. I gradually became aware that most of the acting that I saw was signaling to me that it was tapping into some great truth, and was costing the performer a great deal. It was signaling these things to me, but it wasn’t the case. There was rarely any risk, rarely any exposure – mainly a lot of display. I didn’t know about Live Art, didn’t know it existed. I didn’t know there were ways to perform that didn’t happen in theatres – or, more precisely, that weren’t theatre. When I found Live Art, it felt a bit like coming home, to me. The immediacy of the work – often performing from and with your body as, essentially, your only material – felt like it made total sense. The effort, the task, the endeavor being the thing we watch – the labour of the human being human. The value in that, the expense of that as currency, I totally understood and related to much more comfortably than the concealing of this labour at all costs, that I often encountered in theatre. In the work there was, it seemed to me, a push to have nowhere to hide. And, often, a push to look at, to see (or hear) the difficult things, the painful things, some of the irreducibly terrible things about the world. Not through stories about them, but by putting bodies through situations, tasks, events or moments that are real, in one way or another. And I was drawn to, so relieved by, the audience’s role as witness in this being very clear and not apologised for. It felt to me that the Live Art audience’s attitude was invariably ‘We are not here for escapism – we don’t want to escape. We want to see things super clearly, painfully clearly, more clearly than usual.’ And for me, that was useful and felt valuable.

I’ve been thinking (as I’ve been Thinking) about the route by which I did ‘find’ Live Art. It was hearsay. I didn’t study performance or even art at university (I did English), and I was focusing on working in theatre, as a director. I made pretty weird theatre, that struggled to fit and seemed to annoy people who’d be expecting to have a nice night out. Then someone described a durational Forced Entertainment show to me, and I began to realise that the frame was wider than I had realised. Through becoming interested in Forced Entertainment (it was years until I actually saw something of theirs – it was all rumour and reading for the first while) I then became aware of the Live Art Development Agency. Forced Entertainment’s Artistic Director, Tim Etchells, is a patron of LADA and, simple as that, my research led me there. And then, there I was. Suddenly I knew about Live Art. And I was, and still am, finding out more and more about it all the time. What if that person hadn’t told me about Forced Entertainment, hadn’t described that strange show in which people in a dilapidated basement asked each other questions for hours and hours? Would I have found my way to Live Art anyway? It’s a pointless question in some ways because my only reality is this one, in which I did find my way here. But I’m aware that I’m on a long list of people who came to Live Art by chance. It seems that the familiar stories are of people being shunted towards it almost by mistake during a variety of performance degrees, or of coming to it through being at the margins of a different artistic practice and ‘falling off’ – into Live Art. Nobody I have ever met has said they learned about it at school.

In 1993, artist Richard Layzell wrote a pamphlet on Live Art in Schools, recommending how Live Art practices could be introduced into (and enhance) the school curriculum and environment. It’s 2017 and, as far I can make out, that hasn’t happened. Maybe these enquiries go in waves, and we get a little bit closer every time. Maybe there are solid reasons why Live Art is not taught in schools. Maybe, as the brilliant Sybille Peters who works in this area has said, Live Art is too proud of its 18+ age guidance tag. Is there something about Live Art which is inherently marginal, outcast, subversive, a thing you find if the normative structures available have disappointed you? Would it therefore resist being on a curriculum and boiled down to a learnable history or methodology, within the normalising strictures and structures of a school? Well, of course it would, but maybe everything does. After all, geography, actual geography, is hardly the geography we learn at school. What I can say is that the work of Forced Entertainment is now taught on Theatre Studies syllabuses at school, whereas 20 years ago it wasn’t. And, no, the school teaching won’t plumb the depths of the complexity of the work – but at least students know it exists. Maybe this time round, following in the footsteps of Richard Layzell, we can get a bit closer to Live Art being taught in schools. Or finding the better alternative to that, forging the necessary access point.

At this early stage, my thoughts still lack clarity. I feel a bit like a Thinker-in-Hesitance. But my sense is that the more young people know that there is a way of making performance work which celebrates a continual rewriting of form, which resorts to the body (the radical body as much if not more than the normative body) as its key material, that honours the insurgent value of the ugly and difficult, that can happen right here and right now if you want it to, and that has been over gender for years, the better.

Banner image credit:

Young Hester Chillingworth - Picture courtesy of artist.

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