“If you could hold on to one memory for the rest of your life, which one would you choose?” This is the question at the heart of Dissolve. Awkward City’s latest production journeys into the splintered consciousness of Olivia – a young girl suffering from memory loss – to explore the relationship between memory and identity. I catch up with Amy and Carla Lewis – Co-Artistic Directors of Awkward City – to discuss their latest piece and scratch beneath the surface to unearth what makes this company tick…
“The thing that fascinated us most was the idea that if you lose your memory you lose everything about yourself”, explains Amy. “So you’re standing alone in nothing. Everything goes. And suddenly you have to start again.” In Dissolve, we are plunged inside the mind of Olivia as she struggles to maintain a grip on reality when memories she once cherished begin to disappear. The audience experiences Olivia’s cognitive landscape as she attempts to rebuild her identity through vague impressions from her past. For Amy and Carla, it was crucial that the audience felt they were immersed in Olivia’s world from the start: “It is a collection of memories that this girl is walking through. What we tried to do was get the audience to be in her shoes and feel it. We really tried to pull them in and experience empathy.”
Amy and Carla formed Awkward City while training at college together. It was there that they began experimenting with ideas. Upon graduating from Dartington College of Arts in 2005, they set up Awkward City and began developing original work, including Forgetanamia (a love story set inside a ‘paused’ video game) and As Within, So Without (an investigation into how people behave in relationships). As Amy outlines, the company shares a curiosity for the inner workings of the human brain, and it’s this that inspires much of its artistic practice: “Our work has a lot to do with human behavior and psychology. The way humans interact. That’s something that really draws me in as an interesting topic to work on.”
The genesis for Dissolve was when Amy and Carla began reading Oliver Sacks’s book, The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat – a collection of essays on various neurological and psychological disorders. This proved to be an important source of inspiration, particularly when it came to the subject of memory loss. It was by examining these real life cases that the company began to formulate an idea of how it might translate this subject matter into performance: “There was one woman who had been a neuroanatomist. She lost her memory through a stroke, but she was able to build it back in a way that not a lot of people could because she knew how it worked.” Throughout Dissolve, Olivia fights to reconstruct her broken consciousness and the production’s use of film explores how this is possible in today’s modern age. Multi-media is a prominent feature of Awkward City’s work, and with Dissolve, Amy and Carla harnessed it in order to investigate how ‘recorded memory’ can serve to shape and define an individual’s sense of their own identity: “We’re constantly recording moments from our life, which we then like to refer back to. Everyone takes pictures now. Everyone films everything. So we brought in cameras and a filmmaker and decided that the action would be filmed live, then projected in real time.”
In Dissolve, the relationship between the stage and the screen creates a duality of perspectives. The audience is able to engage on the micro-level with what is taking place on screen, while a busy scene plays out in front of them on-stage at the same instance. By combining live and mediated images Awkward City invites audiences to discover their own way of navigating the performance. As Carla points out, this aesthetic is crucial to the sense of something being reconstructed: “You can do things that are subtle when performing for the screen, but it’s the whole team – the ensemble – that creates the theatre of it as well: watching the scene being constructed, bringing the backdrops on, creating the wind-effects. Everything creates the scene.”
As Amy and Carla acknowledge, this practice of integrating film with live performance presents an array of challenges. This is doubly the case with a live feed. The art of transmitting live over the course of a performance is tricky to say the least. When it works, the effect is exhilarating and illuminating in equal measure, as demonstrated in the work of director Katie Mitchell (a director Amy and Carla acknowledge as an inspiration). For Awkward City, it’s a process that takes time, patience and plenty of trial and error. How does the company go about integrating these elements into rehearsals, and how complicated is it to get it to work? “The first layer is working with the filmmaker”, Amy tells me. “So we go into the space with him and work it out. There are lots of different layers to the rehearsal process; the first is us initially writing and devising, then we bring in the filmmakers. Then once he’s set with his team he directs them. Then we go back to the start and bring the actors in.”
When Awkward City heads to the New Diorama in a month’s time with Dissolve, its hope is that the production will continue to have a life beyond Incoming Festival, with a possible tour lined up in the near future. For Amy and Carla, the restless drive to create work underpins everything they do going forward, and they don’t show any signs of slowing down either: “The way I think most artists and theatre companies work, is that once you’ve got something, you don’t see it as a success. You want the next thing, and the next thing! The challenges actually get much greater.”
Dissolve will be at New Diorama Theatre as part of A Younger Theatre’s INCOMING Festival on 22 May. For more information and tickets, visit NDT’s website.