Is the end of the world approaching? The media certainly nurtures that impression, for clicks and giggles. Well, just clicks. As I write, one of the top headlines on Guardian.co.uk tells me ‘Arctic: Strongest sea ice breaks up for first time on record’, with a subtitle explaining scientists are scared. When I click into the article, I find related articles at the bottom of the page with a similar message, that go as far back as 2012. ‘Arctic ice level could trigger climate change at global level’ (2016); ‘Extraordinarily hot Arctic temperatures alarm scientists’ (2016); ‘Arctic sea ice extent hits record low for winter maximum’ (2015). We’ve been achieving scientifically alarming sea ice depletion and rising Arctic temperatures year on year for a while now it seems.
Yes, environmental and climate degradation seems to be real, and it seems to be really dire. And at the same time, it’s pretty incomprehensible to us. We can’t fathom it. So how do you make a theatre show that deals with the unimaginable?
“I wanted to have a huge iceberg onstage that we would melt with a hairdryer over the course of the show. Obviously, a futile hope with the constraints of a Fringe turnaround.”
I’m speaking to choreographer Liv O’Donoghue about her new show AFTER, which premieres at the Fringe Festival this year. The show has been two years in the making, travelling from Ireland to the Arctic Circle to Norway to Austria via a series of residencies. The starting point was around November 2016, when O’Donoghue was experiencing big anxiety, with the election of Donald Trump, relentless messages about climate change and a general sense of impending doom. Speaking to her mother about her fears, she was told ‘what people really fear is the unknown’. So she decided to confront her most extreme fear, of the biggest unknown: the world’s untimely demise.
“I felt I wanted to confront certain feelings I was having, and deal with them through making. As an artist, that’s how I deal with things. I don’t want to be preaching about saving the world though. What I’m doing is saying, ‘If the world was fucked and was about to end, what would it be like?’ And if that seems bad, let’s try to avoid that.”
On foot of a serendipitous residency, O’Donoghue and the cast got to experience firsthand the sense of desolation and isolation that might go along with world’s end. In November last year, they travelled to Hammerfest, a tiny town in Norway where the sun doesn’t rise during the winter months.
“We were 600 miles inside the Arctic Circle, in the dark, in this little Norwegian cabin. It was pretty intense. And it didn’t really matter what time of the day you did stuff. We climbed a mountain at midnight one night.”
The fringe benefit of near total darkness 24/7 is added ‘blue hour’, the lighting state just before dawn and dusk coveted by photographers, filmmakers and painters for its magical atmosphere. Taking full advantage of this bonus, O’Donoghue and filmmaker José Miguel Jiménez started to piece together a documentary about two people who are facing the end of the world together, played by contemporary dancer Kip Johnson and actor Clara Simpson.
Though her background is in contemporary dance, and she has herself performed for many of Ireland’s major contemporary dance companies, including Liz Roche Company, John Scott Dance, United Fall (Emma Martin) and junk ensemble, AFTER would probably not be classed as ‘dance’ by most. Rather than setting a series of steps that performers have to remember and reenact on stage, O’Donoghue mines their natural physicality in the development period to extract the physical language of the piece.
“In all my work, what I’m interested in is the human. And I think that comes from my background in dance. Everything I think about in my work is in relation to the body and the human and how we deal with things and react to things, and interact with each other. And so with this idea of dealing with the end of the world, what we’re looking at is the end of the world through the eyes of these two characters. And how they cope with it, how they deal with it, and with each other in relation to it.”
The show features both pre-recorded film and live action on stage, with the performers at times responding to the film. The main meat of the film section was built around improvisation in Hammerfest, where O’Donoghue would suggest themes, tones, emotions, and Kip and Clara would ad lib scenes in response. It’s a method that works with the personal histories and natural responses of the performers as raw material. The choreography involved is in the arrangement of this extracted material – gestures, words, ideas – rather than a choreography of bodies alone.
It’s a deep way of working that places human experience at its centre, and allows in, rather than denies, the real experiences of the people on stage.
“What I try to do is take something that ultimately becomes quite base or primal and therefore is something people in the audience can relate to. So you see how these people are acting or reacting and think, ‘Oh fuck, that would be me – that’s what I would do.’ So all of the physicality, in the show always comes from that place of behaviour, rather than form and aesthetic. What I don’t want is for audiences to expect a narrative, because that’s not how I work.”
It’s interesting that AFTER is included in a new category in the Fringe programme this year: ‘Inventors and Mavericks’. It’s one of eight categories across which the programme is divided, including ’13 Good Plays’ and ‘Bodies in Time’ – the first featuring traditional, script-based plays, the second focused on dance, circus and physical theatre. So if AFTER is neither a play or a dance piece, what is it?
“I think the idea of genre in art these days has become… there’s no sense to it anymore really. I don’t know anyone who isn’t working collaboratively. I feel like the genre of dance hasn’t really applied to me for a long time and it just doesn’t really make sense in the way I work with the people in the room.”
Though O’Donoghue doesn’t consider the genre of ‘dance’ really applicable to her work now, she does think the description of her sensibilities as ‘choreographic’ is important.
“I think choreographers think more like painters than playwrights. We think in terms of tone, in terms of rhythm, in terms of energy. In terms of visual ideas. The hierarchy of our concerns would be different to most traditional theatre makers, who are generally concerned with the narrative.”
A democratic working environment is also key for the artist, one where everyone is allowed to voice an opinion and to contribute.
“I cultivate an environment in which everyone is free to comment on and be part of the decision-making process. We’re all in the same boat, nobody’s opinion is invalid. And we’re all watching movies, reading books, engaged in the world… I think categorising people is less and less interesting, and less and less important in the world in general.”
At the centre of AFTER is an attempt to access the emotional landscape we might find ourselves in at the end of the world, rather than trying to picture what rising sea levels might look like. I ask O’Donoghue if she thinks they’ve got there – and whether that’s not absolutely terrifying and draining.
“We’ve got a very good working room, a very healthy working room. Everyone on the gig is very good at looking after each other. We talk about things a lot. And we have a bit of a roadmap now for how we think things would go. It’s an echo of the seven stages of grief, these seven stages before the end of the world. Shock, anger, denial, boredom, fear, acceptance… We’re kind of anthropomorphising the world, giving it these human qualities. And it has a terminal diagnosis. We’re dealing with the grief of that and the ultimate cruelty, which would be us all going together. Where there’s nobody left to remember you.”
Words: Rachel Donnelly
Image Credits: José Miguel
After is in the Project Arts Centre from Sept. 7-15 (no performance on the 9th) at 6.15pm with its final performance being a 3.30pm matinee on the 15th. Tickets €11-€16.