Rachel Birch-Lawson: Getting personal in Unassailable Us

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This piece, Unassailable Us, has gone on the longest journey of any piece I’ve made – both in terms of time (evolving as an idea over four years to date) and, after multiple iterations, ending up in a piece as far from the original starting point as I could have imagined.

What started off as a one-woman show has become a piece about myself and my long-term partner and collaborator, Khyle Eccles. A bit like navigating a long-term relationship, along the making process we’ve hit multiple moments of crisis where we’ve had to burn the whole thing to the ground and begin again. A bit like our relationship, each time a stronger and better piece emerges, phoenix like. Each stripping back has taken us further from our initial ‘good idea’ and closer to a more truthful, honest piece of work.

It’s both brilliant, and a bit brutal, unpacking ten years of dirty laundry and turning it all over to see if it’s useful. It takes a lot of trust, both in one another, and the people around you: you need to know your secrets are safe, that no matter how much you’re cringing, they won’t judge you (too much). It’s also risky: a bit like couple’s therapy, it’s a chance to talk about love and trust and support and care and challenge and burden and tiredness and all the struggles of growing up as adults with another person. This work isn’t autobiographical – and it’s definitely not all dark! – but it’s rooted in the truth of our lives lived together.

It’s risky in other ways, too: finding that fine line between an honesty and revelation that’s useful, interesting, universal: that an audience might want to see; and oversharing awkwardness. This sort of work isn’t possible without an outside eye, without someone to sit and watch and reflect back what they’re seeing, to encourage and probe and guide to dig a little deeper; and also to find ways to make this personal, specific, intimate story reach across space and read for an audience. Working with dramaturg Lou Cope has been invaluable: I don’t think without her pushing us to peel back layers of ‘ideas’, we’d have arrived at this work that is about us: it was her that pointed out that this was the piece we were making anyway, we just had to stop and realise it.

Making this work has been so challenging: it can be excruciatingly embarrassing, spending a morning with your partner working, and bickering, tangling and untangling personal and professional, watched by other people. It can also be really great to sit down and talk about how those things are human, and relevant, and can be incorporated into a performance work in a way that speaks to all of us who’ve ever navigated life with another person.

This wouldn’t have been possible without time: working over nine months, we’ve dipped in and out of the project, as everyone on the creative team has taken time out for other work and project. This has allowed time for reflection, for the multiple changes of direction and redevelopment of ideas that have been crucial to this work. Of course there are minuses: this piece has been on my ‘worry list’ (“how exactly is it all going to turn out?”) for just as long. The whole thing – and it’s not over yet – has been one massive exercise in raising tolerance for vulnerability and capacity for connection – which, I’m starting to realise, is the purpose of performance anyway.

 

Unassailable Us is at Omnibus Theatre on 31st October and Gulbenkian on 16th November 2018. It will tour in 2019

 

Unassailable Us is commissioned by Gulbenkian; supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England; supported via South East Dance and Jerwood Charitable Foundation Dramaturg in Residence programme, with support from Garrick Charitable Trust; and supported by DanceEast and Omnibus Theatre.

 

www.rachelbirchlawson.co.uk

Image: behind-the-scenes shot by Francesca Purcell

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