My First Big D&D

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Last weekend I did something I don’t normally do: I went to talk to people. Specifically, talk to strangers about my “trade”. This happened at Devoted and Disgruntled’s tenth event at York Hall in Bethnal Green, London, an event which aims, according to their website and in the words of Phelim McDermott, artistic director of Improbable, the theatre company that runs Devoted & Disgruntled (D&D):  “involve people taking responsibility for making better theatre and making theatre better. D&D has become a way to engage with the stuff in the wider theatre world I only knew how to complain about before”.

York Hall is an old Neo-Georgian building that houses a recently refurbished leisure centre. I enter through the side of the building, and am then led through a corridor into a large hall, which is to host us for the weekend. Around the centre are about two hundred chairs arranged in a circle. To one side, there’s a long table selling pastries and sandwiches, at the end of which are laid free tea, coffee and biscuits, of which it’s safe to say a truckload were consumed over the weekend.

The event, which is a sort of conference, is organised using Open Space Technology, which is “a form developed to support groups to self-organize and collaborate around any question of shared concern. It gives all participants the chance to propose a starting point for discussion, take part in any of the conversations or flit between them all. It is particularly effective in dealing with complex issues where diverse and conflicting views are present.”  The rule of Open Space is that anyone is allowed to propose a session, which is slotted in along with the other sessions which occur throughout the day. No session is pre-determined — everything is called on the day of the event.

The event kicks off with a short introduction by Phelim McDermott, Director of Improbable, the theatre company that subsidises D&D. During this introduction, he explains what is about to happen throughout the three days (the event took place on Friday and ended on Monday).

McDermott is a funny man (one might say professionally so—he has a background in standup comedy). He has a weary and downtrodden way of presenting himself, until you realise that, whether or not he’s conscious of it, it’s an act. McDermott knows exactly what he’s doing, and he’s a pretty damn fine orator, who’s demeanour can easily switch from comedy to genuinely moving earnestness (at one point, when someone announces on Sunday that #DandD10, the event’s official hashtag, was the sixth trending Twitter hashtag for the previous day, McDermott quips: “I’ve just realised it’s sad that that actually made me a little bit excited”).

 

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McDermott in action

 

The protocol for an Open Space event is intentionally streamlined. One of its main tenets is its openness, ie., anyone is allowed to call a session, and as Phelim says, if you’re hesitant, “thinking perhaps I should, perhaps I shouldn’t: perhaps you should”. Much of the ensuing event is conducted with this same sort of openness.

After the intro, we’re all invited to come into the centre of the circle to grab a marker, a blank sheet of paper, all of which have been pre-set, find a title and subtitle for our session, and call it. Anything we like (seriously: the atmosphere is so comforting that I feel pretty confident I could walk up and call a session called “I think we should burn all books in Great Britain—what do you think?”, and I’d be treated with deference and empathy—albeit probably of the same kind as reserved for a person going through some sort of seismic and very public nervous breakdown).

At this point, people immediately skip towards the middle. It’s surprising at first when you consider such a prospect is pretty scary to most people who aren’t used to doing public speeches… until you remember you’re in a room full of people (well – actors, to be precise) who live and breathe for this sort of occasion.

When I find that when almost all of the sessions have been called, and none have mentioned DANCE, my very own – Obsession? Problem? Occupation? Hobby? – , I get up make my way towards the centre. I write my session down, call it, and when that’s done I sheepishly walk towards the notice board holding my sheet like a wet fish and pin it up, and voilà, and — who knows — people might be gathering tomorrow at 3pm to talk about my session, which I entitled: “Where are the dancers? — Is dance still relevant?” (Prelim is reassuring even on the eventuality of no one turning up at your session: all you have to do is sit and  work on your session alone. Like a bloody grown-up).

There’s something weirdly antiquated about meeting with other people, on your own dime, to talk about something that’s close to your heart. Something almost Baroque about us sitting around in chairs, talking animatedly about recent events at the court.

For the first session I’m not really able to decide which meeting to attend, nor am I particularly interested in any of them. Phelim says this is fine, and part of D&D is also what happens on the sidelines, at the coffee table or at in the smoking area outside: “if it happens, it happens.”

For some reason, I first go to a meeting about producers. I try to take part, but quickly realise that no one is really listening to me, which is probably because I’m not a producer, and the little I happen to say turns out to be not very interesting. Anyway, I quickly weed myself out of this one. For the rest of the session, I spend a lot of time “butterflying” (another official/semi-technical term) around the table. Over the course of the two days I spend at D&D, some of the meetings I attend include:

– “When did it stop being fun and start being scary?” (probably when the student loan bills started coming in, was my personal conclusion);

– “Foreign practitioners in a British scene”;

– “Music is powerful: how to use it in a performance”;

– “What does it mean to be a man?” (I think this one left me more confused than when I went in);

– “What blocks and unlocks creativity?”;

– “Theatre in abandoned housing: how and where?” (Not very much where, as it turns out);

– “What are ways of supporting yourself while supporting others, and why is it important?”

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There’s a Court of Miracles feel to a D&D meeting, and there is no doubt you’ll meet some – to use a technical nomenclature – crazy people here (I won’t go into too much detail as to why I think some people who attend D&D are very possibly out of their minds, but let it be said for the record and before I continue that, a., I don’t necessarily exclude myself from this category, or to be more precise: not every moment of my life is comprised of absolute halcyonian sanity, and b., crazy can be hard to define and categorise but, like porn and postmodernism, you sort of recognise it when you see it). You will find people who’ve perhaps been left out to dry too long, have tried hard and not earned much in the way of professional or critical recognition. You will of course also meet people who are doing reasonably well, and the occasional few who are doing exceptionally well. Not that any of this is the real point of any D&D event, but you wouldn’t be human if none of these questions didn’t cross your mind… (“am I the only person struggling here?”)

(Incidentally, once you get over your own preconceptions, you will immediately feel a bit let-down: you will quickly realise that most people at D&D, including the locos, are expert managers and PRs of their own brands, and they’re extremely active online (in fact far more than you do): in short, they market themselves with efficiency and confidence. It seems no one here is completely out in the wild anymore.)

In a way, D&D puts you in front of your own fears in that it’ll put you in front of a whole spectrum of the profession. In that aspect, it can be scary: there were a couple of older men I caught myself hoping I won’t turn into in twenty years time. In other cases, I met people who were, beyond threatening or inspiring to my own private ambitions and sense of self-worth: different. Interesting. A challenge to my usual social habits. You will meet all sorts of people here: brilliant, idiotic, smart, humble, obnoxious, annoying, loud, gentle, funny, boring people, who are all here for the same purpose as you are: to spend a little time talking about this very strange thing we do for a living. And you will be frustrated and annoyed at times, and bowled over at others. And here’s the thing about D&D, really: how often do you get to meet your peers — those you’ve never met, not the ones you live with or see at the pub — over a whole weekend? Do I want to hear my own middle-class, bored and jaded peers agree with middle-class, bored and jaded old me, and rant about the same things as me (although be reassured: of this sort of interaction you’ll still find plenty at D&D)? — or do I want to come out of myself by confronting the unknown? Many of us experience the world of artists, our peers, through clicks, scroll bars, Vimeo and YouTube embeddable media, and I find it harder to pinpoint the existence of any king of real artistic community, in London at least. This is a crass generalisation of course, in that none of us ever function entirely independently, nor can we exist solely online (for now at least). But in attending a D&D event, you will experience an odd feeling of doing something that feels mildly antiquated, in a way that is healthy – antiquated in the same way that building a chair is antiquated, and yet healthy in the same way: one that bestows a certain sense of accomplishment, the feeling of having built something. Go to any D&D event, and you will feel that you have somehow built something, and in a way perhaps you will have.

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