Guest Blog: Director Alex Sutton On Dave Malloy's PRELUDES at Southwark Playhouse
In 2017, I reached a point in my career with theatre where I was continually asking myself "What is it for? What is its point? Is it just for entertainment? Is it for recognition? Is it for glory? Is it for fame? Is it for acceptance?"
The more I questioned this, the less I was able to be optimistic. The struggle to make work happen got heavier, the lengthy self-justifications for awards applications and arts council funding continually were doomed to fail, and making productions was less exciting and more of a crushing disappointment - an emotionally stressful and damaging event that led nowhere.
I cried at night not really knowing what to do, whilst superficially happy during the day. Nobody suspected a thing. I was the same old Alex. I tried to work, but I felt like I had lost my creative drive and optimism that I had taken for granted for so long. What good am I? Why does anyone care? Why would I bother? Is it not enough just to make something? A difficult admission, but I had to accept that I was unwell, unable to see any light and grieving for what I thought was the end of my relationship with the arts completely.
Thinking about my own mental health is one thing but, after talking to other people in the arts, we all shared a horrifyingly similar story - and that is the story of failure. We fail the interview, audition, recall, to get the funding, to convince the right theatre, to be any good at social media, to do the right thing, the wrong thing, anything...and it is precisely this daemon that sneaks up on us and heightens our fear, our stress and anxiety and draws us down very dark paths.
We expose our minds on a daily basis, and now rejection and failure are standard ways of living. In fact, why stop at in the world of the arts? Failure is a basic tenant of human life. Our Western perception of failure is extremely negative; it means that we have stopped ourselves from achieving, or doing - it stops us creating in any way. There is no profession in this world which avoids the effects and consequences of failure.
As a theatre-maker, I really do truly believe in the transformative power of what we do. So, having decided to try, one more time, to get something together, I started looking for works that explored this idea of failure and the redemptive power of making something and what that could mean to an audience who came to experience it.
It didn't take long for my ears to fall on Dave Malloy's album for the original cast of Preludes. As a musician, I did study Rachmaninoff preludes on the piano and sang his vocal works. In fact, the C# Minor prelude was a party piece of mine. But I did not know of his engaging with hypnotherapy (brought about from his psychosis caused by the failure of his first symphony) and, even reading several biographies, there is very little written about it. However, the culmination of these sessions was the 2nd Piano Concerto, potentially his most famous work.
I adored Preludes immediately. It was like Glyndebourne had asked The Aphex Twins to write an opera that was going to be directed by Björk. It's the story of how a young Rachmaninoff deals with and, in time, comes out of the most horrifying failure on the world stage, but told through the prism of our contemporary world, as if Malloy is telling us this story through his own eyes, whilst revealing to us a universal idea of dealing with failing.
Its mix of classical piano, electronics, rock concerts, chamber concerts and musical theatre, mixed with a play set both in Rachmaninoff's hypnotised brain and in a therapy session, made my mind fizz with the possibility of reimagining the audience-performer relationship to something of more on an equal footing. Instead of a traditional musical that screams "LOOK AT ME!", or a play that says "Think about me", this show says "Slow down, listen, remain calm, think, create, make, accept who you are, and eventually you can navigate this world".
It became very clear to me that Malloy's work, which so expertly explores what it means to fail, to deal with your inner daemons and to learn to have joy again despite the cruelty of the world, could mean so much more than just itself as a piece of theatre. I felt that if I am really questioning what it is I do, I have to ask the question "Why is this show meaningful to real people with real lives in the real world who may have nothing to do with the arts?".
Dave's Preludes has allowed me to explore that question, and I hope that the production manages to speak to anyone watching it in a really personal, but quiet, therapeutic way.
Photo credit: Scott Rylander