giving thanks for ‘Headstate’

“How did you get here?”
   – all of the characters at one point or another, Headstate.
i have been thinking back to some of the performances that inspired me, moved me, and/or made me look at the world, or performance, differently. in this season of thanks, i figure it’s never too late to show some appreciation. so i’ll start with The Other Side Theatre’s 1998 production of Headstate by Irvine Welsh.

SIDEBAR: this was a long time ago, and i have only my memory to rely on – so my apologies if i get actual details of the production wrong. this isn’t meant as a 16 years too late review, but rather an appreciation for a piece of art that changed my life.

first: a little history. prior to seeing this production (though i had been in their ensemble-created Medea), i had not yet seen an Other Side show. i had heard of them (a group of young, passionate artists producing challenging work like Rhinoceros and Hamletmachine), and (at the time) they were working in what i considered to be my dream place to create theatre – the Back Door Theater (which, at the time (i believe), was called “The Asylum”) – a 40-seat, back-of-a-coffeeshop, in-the-round black box. anything could happen there.

second: Headstate – since this isn’t a review, i won’t give too many plot details – for context, it’s just important to know that it’s the author of Trainspotting and features damaged people doing terrible things to themselves and others, involving drugs (surprise!) and violence (among other things).

entering for Headstate, the show was already in process: the cast of four on stage, dancing to throbbing techno. each character broke from the dancing group and approached the audience in turn, speaking to us directly, loudly, forcing themselves to be heard over the music. some would even sit beside us, uncomfortably close. when they finished speaking, they would return to the center and resume their ferocious dancing. they danced through the entire pre-show – fifteen minutes of exhaustive dancing before the play technically began. there was no way they could sustain this energy through the entire production.

…but there was a way. this was a dream cast – Sean Doran, Jen Hoyt, Ryan Schaufler and Sydney Folts (now Somerfield). each one committed so fearlessly to their roles, scorching indelible moments on their audience. including…

  • Jen’s mad attempts to pawn her baby off on audience members (this is a performer who only gives 100% – every muscle, every movement is all for her character);
  • Ryan’s human character disintegrating in front of our eyes to become nothing more than a ravenous, desperate dog and never seeming to be anything less than real;
  • Sydney’s cool, removed character whose emotional distance becomes all the more shocking when you meet her in person and realize just how far away that is from her; and
  • Sean in a corner of the stage singing along to a song (the script tells me it was “Dirt” by the Stooges (and truth be told, he might have been lip syncing – but it seemed like his voice then as it does now)) and occasionally breaking out to engage with the audience before delving back to his karaoke nightmare – it’s this moment that keeps coming back to me.

all delivered in the thickest accents imaginable – and while a Scottish attendee might have scoffed (and sticklers may have quibbled), the passion and commitment to the characters made any doubt about the chewy accents disappear. i didn’t care if this was spot on: it was who these people were.

Vanessa Rios y Valles’ direction made all of this come to life – keeping the action moving even though each scene was punctuated by a blackout – every scene jumping through time until the characters reach the one scene they can’t get back from – the blackout comes, lights return – and the scene remains the same. no one can escape it.

let me be clear here – is Headstate a great play? i’d say no (though it’s miles beyond the “read a book to the audience” that was Trainspotting: the play). this production might not even have been perfect, but what i left the theater with that night was inspiration. i left humming with the energy of the show and the performances. these were artists on a small budget, working day jobs in offices…and yet…

and yet, the passion brought to the stage, the commitment to a challenging script that no one else would dare touch, the attention to every moment the audience is in the space – from opening the door to closing it behind them: i had never seen anything like it. nor have i since. and it changed me. everything i wanted to do in the theatre solidified for me that night. i wanted to make that kind of engaging, daring work – and if no one else would do those scripts or those performances, i’d have to make the opportunities myself.

and after closing our most recent show in November, i was left thinking about that night in 1998. How did I get here? it started the night The Other Side and their Headstate ruined me. for the better.
in the words of Laurie Anderson:

i just want to say thanks.

16 years later.

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