Chris Thorpe: ‘Let’s talk about death’
I’m looking at Lisbon through the swaying, slightly pixelated lens of Skype. “What I really like about this is its combination,” enthuses a disembodied voice. “It’s not a beautiful view.” Theatre writer and performer Chris Thorpe is speaking off-camera. “There’s the lovely other side of the river, but the docks are in the way and you can see all the cranes and the container ships.”
Like the subjects he scrutinises in the brilliant, thought-provoking work that has made his name, what fascinates Thorpe are the details and contradictions that make up what he’s showing me – and which give it life. His ability to look more closely than others is also there in the way, with blunt, dry humour, he carefully weighs my questions and reflects on his answers.
Thorpe has worked a lot in Portugal, partly because “over here probably feels more live art-y than in Britain – although that’s not a division you’d even think about here,” he muses. When we speak, he’s touring a new collaborative show with Portuguese company Mala Voadora, Your Best Guess. “It’s just asking why we make plans – why we make concrete plans to commemorate events that never happened.” He’s intrigued by the way we bet on the future.
After this, Thorpe will be performing at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe in a pair of shows he’s co-written. (He’s also contributed to Third Angel and Mala Voadora’s The Paradise Project.) Am I Dead Yet? is new, while Confirmation is returning after its Fringe First-winning debut in 2014. He was even due to perform another piece, Human Resources, with poet Hannah Jane Walker, but this has been cancelled, “due to unforeseen circumstances,” according to the team behind it. Apologetically, Thorpe says he can’t talk about why. “It isn’t me being cagey, it just isn’t happening.”
Am I Dead Yet? explores “one of the biggest and at the same time malleable constants we have,” Thorpe says, speaking of death. “It works at a metaphorical level. It can be made to mean so many things.” But, he argues: “Very rarely do we sit down and say, ‘Let’s just talk about it, let’s talk about what happens to us and let’s talk about why we don’t talk about it’.” He and co-writer, performer and long-term friend and colleague Jon Spooner have used that as “a framework, just to have an open conversation” in a room of people.
On the few occasions he and Spooner have performed Am I Dead Yet?, Thorpe has loved how it has altered from day to day. “We’ve been really lucky to get a huge range of responses from people,” he says, “from the incredibly moving to things that have just been funnier than anything me and Jon could have made up.” He’s been heartened by a sense of “some great and ongoing conversation being opened up.”
That sensation is why he enjoys touring. “It’s about getting out there and speaking to people in places you wouldn’t normally go,” he says. There isn’t a ‘touring hierarchy’ for Thorpe. “It doesn’t have a marketing function for me. It happens when you go to a place where someone thinks there are people who might be interested in having a conversation.”
And that relationship with the wider world is crucial to Thorpe. Breaking down barriers – acknowledging the nearness that exists not just between himself and audiences, but also to the flow of everything happening outside the space they’re briefly sharing – is key to his approach to writing and collaborating. “I think that goes for all the shows I’m involved with,” he reflects. “We never want to fail to acknowledge that.”
Since leaving Leeds University (where, by happy accident, he’d ended up studying drama only because he’d made a mistake on his UCAS application form), Thorpe’s trajectory as a theatremaker has been tied to the fringe. He went there with Unlimited Theatre, the company he formed in the late 1990s with Spooner. They met in their late teens, founding Unlimited “when you roll out of education, into the big world, and you haven’t got a clue what you’re supposed to be doing or how to do it.” He smiles. “But here we are, 20 years on.”
Unlimited Theatre had been around for a little while before it ended up at the fringe, in 2000, with Static, written by Thorpe. “We only went when we thought we actually had a play that people would be interested in coming to see, rather than it just being an experience for us,” he says. It worked out well, and Thorpe was soon being approached by people keen to collaborate on projects. It was “a real watershed moment,” he recalls. Theatremaking “no longer felt like magic and I no longer looked at people who were doing this for a job as if they were somehow wizards,” he laughs.
Static bagged a Fringe First, one of several Thorpe has since won in collaboration or writing and performing alone. Now, he takes a broad view of the Edinburgh bubble, describing it as “just brilliant” if you’re starting out. “It’s teaching you how to work under pressure, how to form those relationships and how to get out there and do the best show that you can,” he says. But, he cautions, if you’re early in your professional career, “be very careful. You need to know why you’re going at that point – and why you’re going has to have a set of clear goals. Otherwise, you’re just throwing away money, stress and time.”
Once you’re more established, Thorpe believes, the fringe is important “because you want audiences who want to see your work to be able to,” but also if you want that work to have a life beyond Edinburgh. “It’s a great way of getting what you’ve made out into the world, because a lot of the people who can help you do that are concentrated in that place, at that time.” But, he warns, “If you ever lose sight of the fact that it’s all about the work, then you’re screwed.” If you’re not going in order to be part of an artistic dialogue, “you’re not going to have a good time”.
And what about winning awards? “I’m not going to pretend it’s not brilliant,” Thorpe says. “And I’m not going to pretend it’s not a useful thing when the work goes beyond Edinburgh.” But, he continues, “I think you’d be daft if you used it to alter your idea of what the value of your work is. You wouldn’t necessarily let a terrible review influence you, so I don’t see why you would let an award do that.” Then he laughs. “But one of those things is undeniably more pleasant to get than the other.”
When talking about his work, Thorpe shirks from the word ‘career’, conceding the broad brushstrokes of this “hilarious” label only as a shorthand for the “series of seemingly arbitrary decisions and accidents that have just ended up with me doing some stuff”. But there are connecting threads: finding huge inspiration in collaboration (it’s why he eventually branched out from Unlimited, as opportunities came knocking), treating theatre as a truly communal space, and asking questions.
When I ask Thorpe if he ever feels like he’s breaking out of boxes by writing and performing, he tells me no; for him, the question is more why he both writes solo and collaborates. “I could probably do either of those things exclusively, so why do both?”, he asks rhetorically. His reasons are as honest as his work. “I couldn’t just sit and write all the time, because I would miss people; and I couldn’t ever be creating all the time with people, because I would miss being on my own.”
And what does a working day look like? “It can be 10 hours of relative inactivity, punctuated by a two-hour period where you write everything of value that day. Or it could just be the logistics of having to fucking get somewhere to do a job,” he says. “But something I always try to keep at the heart of it is being honest with myself about when I’m prevaricating. And even if it doesn’t feel like your mind is constantly working, you’ve got to trust that it is, at some level.”
Thorpe’s shows touch a nerve, delving into the tangle of modern life to examine and challenge its underlying trends and assumptions from myriad angles, notably by sparking off other people. Respectively, The Oh Fuck Moment and I Wish I Was Lonely, his recent collaborations with Hannah Jane Walker, explored our attitude toward mistakes and our reliance on phones in funny, unsettling ways.
His work changes shape with every question he asks. It’s important to his belief in theatre’s aliveness. “You find the right form for the subject that you want to investigate, the story you want to tell,” he says adamantly. “The blueprint changes every time you decide to deal with a different aspect of human experience.” Proposing an alternative to traditional theatre isn’t his goal – pursuing an idea is.
If, as Thorpe believes, all the bad things that have happened in our shared lifetime have been “done by a group of people or a single person who thought they were right”, every wonderful thing “comes out of uncertainty and experiment”.
If you read or watch enough interviews with Thorpe, what emerges is his distrust of conviction, of what he calls “rightness” – of believing we know best, either about ourselves or others. This underpinned Confirmation, his powerful hybrid of lecture and performance (made with director Rachel Chavkin) in which he explored confirmation bias, the theory that we match the world to our preconceptions.
How does Thorpe feel about returning to Confirmation after a general election result that saw blind-sided left-wing voters take to social media to decry parts of the British population as “stupid”? “Seeing that played out, having spent nearly a year performing the show, never mind the year and a bit I spent making it, was really frustrating,” he says. Not, he stresses, because he felt he was “further along the road of openness”, but because it reaffirmed his sense of our innate tendency to “misinterpret our experience of the world as the world”.
But while Thorpe thinks we’re hardwired, he still sees hope. “If you’ve been aware of it once, you’re more likely to be aware of it again,” he argues. “You can develop, I think, the ability to step outside of yourself a little bit more.”
And while he finds it understandable that people lashed out in anger in the immediate aftermath, “there has to be an analysis of why ‘I’ was made so angry, and a commitment to then not fall into that trap of misinterpretation again,” he says. And anger, when channelled away from people and into a critique of the ideologies and mechanisms of power, can be a potent force, believes Thorpe.
As a theatremaker, that involves constantly questioning everything and translating that for audiences. “One of the greatest weapons in the arsenal of government, or anyone, is to convince people that they are just the way they are,” Thorpe says. “The argument of human nature is one of the most potentially dangerous weapons that we have, because it allows large-scale manipulation.”
Questioning himself and others propels Thorpe. He compares it to being unable to stop collecting stones. “Sometimes it feels like I’m just picking up the next thing that I don’t understand,” he muses. “There’s an infinite vista in front of me littered with objects that are part of the process of being human.” He laughs. “I guess one of the driving forces is that I’m lucky that I don’t appear to have the capacity to understand a lot of things.”
Thorpe’s first ‘stone’, which produced Static, stemmed from a rumble of questions around the first Gulf War and press coverage of the break-up of Yugoslavia and NATO’s bombing of Kosovo. “I was looking at newspaper images of conflict and not just thinking, ‘God this is awful’, or, ‘Why is this happening’, but also thinking, ‘Why is it here?’ he recalls. “Why is this object in my hands? Why is it important for a bunch of people in the world to feel like they need to show me what’s going on? Why do I feel I need to know? What does it do?”
Such ever-multiplying questions are why Thorpe often has to make big cuts to his work before it reaches the stage. He needs to dig as deeply as he can at first, probing everything. This echoes in the importance he places on living every beat in Confirmation in every performance. Otherwise, he says, audiences might as well go and contemplate a sculpture. “If you start trying to replicate that thing you did yesterday that worked for that bunch of people, then you’re screwed, because that bunch of people have moved on.”
Thorpe reframes experiences, zeroing in on and unpacking moments and inviting audiences in new directions. He’s always admired artists who “uncompromisingly stick to what they feel to be the right way of doing things for them.” It’s partly why he’s a fan of heavy metal music, playing guitar in Lucy Ellinson’s political noise project, TORYCORE, which overlays political speeches with deafening sound.
Sometimes, Thorpe’s goal is as simply that, when an audience leaves, “they don’t feel something has ended,” he states. “That they’re walking into the same world they were in when they were in the room, but that we’ve used that specific, constructed place to open up the world outside – while never forgetting it’s also one of the most live spaces we still have in society, one where we have the luxury of just sitting and experiencing.”
It’s not hard to see why Thorpe thinks helping emerging artists is crucial. While it’s been years since he’s had to supplement his income by working in a nightclub, Unlimited “got start-up capital from the Prince’s Youth Business Trust,” he says. “That bought us our first computer, it allowed us to rent an office for a bit. It allowed us, psychologically, to have conversations on a more equal footing with the people who might help us make the work.”
For Thorpe, “funding is an absolute pre-requisite for anything that helps the world. Be that political ideas and philosophies; be it medicine or be it art.” So he’s angered by the government’s sweeping arts cuts, “which I think, proportionately, put early-career artists in a much worse situation than established companies and buildings.” He says grimly that this has happened because the government knows, when you want to cut support for something, whether social housing or the arts, “you convince the people you’re talking to that that thing is only important to someone else.”
But while he feels lucky to have begun when he did, “I am really, really aware that I never want to say to people who are starting out now, ‘Don’t do it, it’s shit’.” He believes passionately that established artists, like himself, should encourage those coming up to see “that the situation now might be difficult, but that isn’t a cause to give up. We can turn this around. Art can make the case it needs for being a vital part of the mental health of the nation.”
An aspect of that, he believes, is looking to other models, in countries where culture is better funded and the government is prepared to admit that. “If you look at Germany,” he continues, “that increased its arts funding [after the financial crisis].” By the same token, he’s dismayed by Portugal’s decision in 2012 to abolish its Ministry of Culture.
Thorpe’s commitment to the transformative power of the arts is infectious. From his solo pieces, to plays such as There Has Possibly Been an Incident, he explores big questions in ways that root the abstract in the lived moment. It’s why he’s so passionate about theatre. “It’s a space where, when that happens to you, when you think, ‘Why is this here?’, you have the luxury of almost stopping time and really investigating what you’re thinking in that moment – in as much detail as you need.”
He finds it amusing when I ask if he’d ever consider, one day, running a theatre. He’s a big fan of venues that “keep an open mind and an open conversation about the kind of people” they put in charge. “But could I imagine it for me?”
Thorpe pauses. “I don’t know,” he says with the hint of a smile in his voice. “A building I ran could be amazing – or it could be on fire within five minutes.”