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Friday, October 3, 2014

Lisa Dwan—Strapped In, Babbling Away

Director Walter Asmus and Lisa Dwan in rehearsal. Photo by John Haynes

Lisa Dwan first performed Not I in 2005 in a production directed by Nathalie Abrahami at London’s Battersea Arts Centre, and subsequently worked with Billie Whitelaw, who originated the role under Samuel Beckett’s direction. Following are excerpts of Dwan’s thoughts on preparing for the demanding performance with Whitelaw and director Walter Asmus, and on Beckett, adapted from a BBC interview done in September 2014.

by Lisa Dwan

Few know what it is to have your entire nervous system splayed open like that, Few know what it is to be suspended in that darkness, let alone the hideous difficulty of learning a text such as Not I, and to go on to perform one of the most difficult pieces ever devised. But there is one. One who knew more than most.

I met Billie Whitelaw in 2006 a few months after my first performance of Not I in London. Edward Beckett attended one of those performances and over a Guinness with me afterwards suggested it might be finally worthwhile to meet her “…now that I’d found my own way.”

And as luck would have it a few weeks after that the BBC put us in touch for an in-conversation piece about the role.
We immediately swapped our trench stories. I told her how I strap my head into the banisters at home and babble away for hours training my mouth and diaphragm to speak at the speed of thought without moving a millimeter.

Billie’s head by contrast had been strapped to a dentist’s chair, where once she collapsed during rehearsals and Sam [Beckett] rushed over to her saying “Billie, Billie! What have I done to you?, What have I done?!”… and coming to she replied, “I really don’t know how to answer that Sam.” “Never mind,” he said “back you go.”  

“But I would have walked on glass for that man,” Billie admitted.

She also admitted how she never felt she quite recovered from that role and that none of his other plays, including the ones he wrote for her—Rockaby and Footfalls—had taken its toll quite like Not I. “I lost a piece of me in there and it never got any easier,” she told me, and in 1977 she declared, “I will not play that role again, I cannot, if I do then I shall go mad.”

We agreed the hardest element of all—aside of course from the neck strain, the hernias, the stroke inducing stress of it and the development of pelican like jowls for spit collection since there is no time to swallow—is attempting to control and suppress one’s own internal Not I. In the nightly terror that the piece always produces—the thoughts, like vultures, hover above his lean lines.

A year after our first meeting I received a call out of the blue from Billie. “I want to give you his notes, I have to give you his notes...” Now, I had no idea that I would ever play this role again so I wasn’t quite sure what had me standing in Billie’s kitchen later that afternoon. I thought she might take out and dust off an old rehearsal manuscript but instead she told me to sit down at the table and “Begin!” As I started speaking she sat directly opposite and began waving her hand… conducting me. “Ta... ta... ta... tah... Ta... ta... ta... tah... I later learned that was exactly what Beckett had done to her… across her kitchen table.

Billie lifted the lid on all of his well-worn notes… especially, “Don’t act—no color.” She saw how I strained to hold back the tide of the Irish voices, the sounds, and the effect of what the very notion of “home” produced in me.

Lisa Dwan in Not I. Photo: Sky Arts/Justin Downing
Unbeknownst to me Walter Asmus was in the audience at the Royal Court. He had flown over from Berlin. Afterwards he announced himself to me and offered to direct me in Beckett’s other two—Footfalls and Rockaby—and put them as a trilogy with Not I.

I wasn’t at all sure that performing these three together was even physically possible… but I agreed immediately and Walter and I headed to an isolated cottage in County Monaghan to work things out.

He often said when rehearsing Not I: “It’s coming too easy to you—it needs to cost you more, we need to see you bleed up there.”

I only later realized what he was doing by getting me totally technically aligned—with my tone pitch perfect, my arms outstretched to allow the breath into the voice until suddenly one day he let me go and I caught what I can only describe as an invisible current. I felt like a glider, and I needed that momentum to take me right to end of that piece… to face the loneliest truth of all; that I am my own other…“own other living soul.”

When I looked up—Walter was weeping.

One of the gifts of the sensory deprivation in Not I is that I don’t even feel like a human being half the time up there and that’s just so liberating. Who’s going to want all that from me? We tend to view ourselves and our world in bite-sized chunks—what we think we can cope with. We create pithy, palatable realities shaped by our small prejudices and fears.
Beckett blows all that up and offers instead the most enormous landscape where we must bring everything we are and could possibly be to it. No other writer I have ever come across has ever asked or offered so much.

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