Omnibus Theatre: What can Omnibus Theatre audiences expect from Learning to Swim in the Abyss?

Stella Duffy: I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t know. Often, when people talk about improvising or live-making, they do kind of have an idea of what they’re going to do on the night – I’m actually trying NOT to do that. After decades of working as a performer and theatre-maker and improviser (as well as a novelist and Fun Palaces co-director) I’m genuinely interested in trying to be truly in the moment. To see what happens if I bring some themes to the room and honestly listen – both to myself in that space and to whatever I feel from the audience.

So – what can an audience expect? Something where I’m not pretending to be another person or pretending that there is a fourth wall. Something that is as honest and open as I’m able to be in that moment. Something that is a combination of storytelling, improvisation, physical work and – with any luck – their presence. I won’t be pretending they’re not there. (I also won’t be picking on them or demanding participation!) Other than that, I have no idea. And I’m happy (albeit nervous, uncertain, excited) about having no idea.

OT: What drives you to explore themes of life, death, grief and joy in your work?

SD: Well, I’ve had cancer twice and, more recently, spent some time considering mortality – my own as well as ideas we share about what mortality really is. I’m interested in being honest about how I feel about those things – not the deaths of others, not the funny story about this funeral or the sad one about when my dad died, but my own mortality. Personal death. I don’t think we talk about this enough – we limit our experience of death to the deaths of others, often very powerful deaths of others, but rarely our own.

I have written in a play (The Matilda Effect) “death is the proof of life” – and my own experience is that my illnesses have also given me (on occasion) a strong sense of life, of being alive. So … life and death, for me, are about grief and joy. Exploring the grief and the joy in both. I’m not sure I can do that in a one hour improvised piece (!), but I’m happy to try to touch on it. (nb, with any luck it won’t be quite as portentous as all this might sound – I’m very keen on light touch around dark things.)

OT: How did you settled on the title, Learning To Swim In The Abyss?

SD: I love swimming. Not lengths, I’m not fussed about lengths (though I’ll do them if it’s a good, unheated outdoor pool – Brockwell Lido for example) but I do love to be held by water, in rivers, lakes and – ideally – the sea. Specifically the Pacific, off the east coast of Aotearoa/New Zealand if at all possible. I’m a strong swimmer and love the feeling of both safety (held by the water) and danger – oceans, big waves, currents – the way anything can change at any moment. There’s a real edge to sea swimming that I crave.

I’m also thinking a lot about the abyss at the moment – the bottomless, side-less ‘well’ that is life/death and everything in between. The notion that there is no place of ‘safety’ and that, in life, we must learn to swim in our own abyss, the truth of our own lives. This piece is, in part, an exploration of what it means to me to swim in my own life, with an awareness of my own mortality. My second solo show (Breaststrokes) was a cancer and swimming piece I performed at BAC and various other places in 2004/2005. It was a written, rehearsed, choreographed, lit, designed, underscored piece with swimming on stage – basically I had everything else that theatre usually offers to hold us up on stage. This time I’ll have me and whoever comes. I find that both exciting and also quiet, simple. I’m interested in making things simple.

OT: The show is completely improvised and unrehearsed, what could go wrong and what could go right?

SD: All of it, I suppose. I guess the main thing that could go wrong is around people’s expectations – if they don’t think I honestly mean that it’s improvised, if they think I must have some structure or script to hold on to, if they are expecting a ‘play’, then they’ll likely be disappointed – or maybe they’ll be relieved or thrilled (that would be nice). Other than that, I’m happy to see what happens. I hope anyone generous enough to give me an hour of their time is fine with that too.

I’m especially grateful to Jacqui Beckford who has agreed to be my BSL interpreter on Tuesday 27th. Jacqui is an amazing performer, who I’ve worked with in both improvised and scripted pieces. She gets right into the work and is a fine performer in her own right. Given how little we know of what will happen, I love that she said yes to interpreting the piece for me on the Tuesday night, and it will be nice for me to share the space with another person.

OT: Sixteen novels, dozens of short stories, fourteen plays? What’s next for you artistically?

SD: My novel The Hidden Room comes out in paperback on 1st February, and I have a new novel out in hardback on March 8th, Money in the Morgue – I have completed Ngaio Marsh’s unfinished manuscript, she had written four chapters before abandoning the book in the 1940s. That’s been a huge challenge, to try to capture her style while also bring something of myself to the work. Other than the new book I have a couple of ongoing collaborations I’m developing with fellow writers and performers, a few comedy impro gigs booked for the spring, and my work with Fun Palaces takes up the rest of my time. I also have a potential short story nagging at the back of my mind right now – when it comes to the forefront, I’ll write it.

Learning to Swim in the Abyss (A Live Improv Death Show) is running at Omnibus Theatre from Mon 26 – Wed 28 Feb. To find out more and get your ticket click here

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