Works Ahead: expect something weird, personal and entirely half-done

Theatre making is trial and error. It’s this mishmash of half-formed, often obscene ideas, and the process of trying to make sense of them in a coherent (yet, hopefully somewhat entertaining) manner. It can also be painfully difficult to break free from an internal prison of self indulgence and welcome the audience’s true wishes.

That is why evenings like Works Ahead are vital. The event at Z-arts is an annual scratch theatre night which allows artists to present the prepubescent stages of their work to an audience who are expecting something weird, personal and entirely half-done. The night featured two solo pieces broken up by an interval, with the hot topic of the night being an overarching theme of identity.

The first of the two was from London-based performance artist Vijay Patel with his work Sometimes I Leave. “I will sit here and you can ask me anything you want about my Asperger Syndrome” he grinned, awaiting the flurry of questions that ensued. He was quick, charismatic, and very funny when answering people’s queries. Patel instantly developed a rapport with the audience, whilst keeping them at a safe distance. He facilitated the room with an infectious dry humour, a knowledge between us that we were different, and that’s ok.

The piece was essentially a navigation through Patel’s mind, looking at his daily thoughts and how they differed from the status quo. The show’s title refers to an intense difficulty Patel has: compulsively having to leave situations which make him uncomfortable. He initially warned the audience: “Be prepared for me to leave at any point.” The piece used music, projection, and video to paint the outline of a complex and historically misunderstood condition. Fragmented personal details were broken up with information regarding research into a therapy for Aspergers’ involving the consumption of parasitical worms. This grotesque and somewhat degrading treatment really hit home. It brought to light the general misconception that Aspergers’ is a disease that needs to be ‘cured’ at any cost, rather than a unique and integral part of someone’s identity.

At one point Patel consulted the audience saying, “I need three people to support me”, a subtle notion which held profound connotations. These people were individually invited to manoeuvre toy cars around a Skilletrix set while Patel spoke about receiving his Aspergers’ diagnosis as a child. This section was left pretty much unexplained, but created an acute sense of nostalgia. It also allowed the audience to pick up on personal memories among systems of order and control. It is clear that the work is still in its early stages of development, due to its hap-hazard collection of concepts, and it cried out for an underpinning aim to act as a framework. However, the work was unique, informative and presented Patel as his complete, authentic self.

The second instalment was from Emma Geraghty in a piece called Fat Girl Singing. As the name suggests, the piece involved music and confessional monologues about body image. While the self-aware title implies a bold and fierce comedic presence, Geraghty is somewhat shy and reserved. She walked us through the trials of being sixteen stone, larger than her siblings and chronically single. Amongst a world full of anxiety and insecurity, Emma takes comfort in music. Her reassurance through music was reflected in her performance – interjecting her stories with her own songs and showcasing her crisp, soothing voice whilst strumming on her guitar. Her confidence and creative flare beamed from her when she sang. One which stood out for me was her re-working of Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You, where she parodies the unrealistic expectations put on women via the music industry.

Much like Patel’s piece, Fat Girl Singing was an education on how people are ‘othered’ in their every day lives, finding it difficult to simply exist. Dates and doctor’s appointments become impossible obstacles that Gerraghty has to grit her teeth for. Gerraghty relayed one particular encounter with a man by telling the story the three ways she told different figures in her life, her mum, her friends, herself. Through each version of the story, she used the medium of beverages shared with audience members to imply the levels of intimacy she was willing to take. As the final (and true) version of the story was about to be told, the audience waited with baited breath as she poured two shots of tequila and posed the question: “Would anyone like to take a shot with me?”. To everyone’s delight, one lady yelled excitedly: “I’ll take a shot with ya love!”, and the pair raised their glasses before knocking back the alcohol and Gerraghty was ready to confess. There was something quietly profound about the image of those two strangers raising a glass in a darkened a room. It was a big united ‘fuck you’ to men who would try to tell women how to present themselves to the world.

The performance was moving by the end, and received loud applause following a rallying cry from Gerraghty about breaking down destructive stereotypes and embracing our true selves. Moving forward, the piece is hungry for sophisticated transitions and a shaking up of ways to tell its stories. Gerraghty herself will hopefully become a more confident performer, as when she is relaxed and assured in her own abilities, that’s when the work really shines.

Both pieces require a clear central idea to connect the dots and careful meditation. However, both harness techniques and raise ideas which are truly compelling. Nights such as Works Ahead dismantle the idea of the arts being a wholly elitist industry, and create an environment of collaboration and conversation. Long may they continue.