Welcome back! So it’s day two of our R&D at The Arcola Theatre and we are in full experimentation mode. Our fantastic musicians have been mining the text for its natural musicality, breaking apart the rhythms of Ellison’s writing and deciding how best the music can service the piece.
Meanwhile, Tinu and our performer, Clarence, have been cracking the prologue wide open, playing around with the narrative voice and trying out some new stuff that has surprised them both.
To tell us more about the process so far and give us an insight into his relationship with The Invisible Man, here’s the marvelously charming and talented Clarence Smith:
NATHAN: Clarence, I’d love to hear about how The Invisible Man came into your life.
CLARENCE: Well I was about 15, which is many many moons ago, and I found this novel on a friend’s bookshelf; the picture on the cover was a distorted image of a black man’s face. I thought to myself “why do these white people have this book in their house?” – there really wasn’t a lot of other black literature there! The book was called The Invisible Man.
I started reading the prologue. ‘I am an invisible man.’ Now, growing up as a black boy in Brixton, there were quite limited ideas of what you could be – “Are you a soul boy? Are you a reggae boy?” – but in all actuality I was a punk boy!
NATHAN: And there weren’t a lot of black punks at the time?
CLARENCE: Not really, no! I definitely stuck out, and in reading this novel it helped me realise that you can ask others to look beyond your surroundings and see you for who you are. To be honest, even dressing like a punk was just a suit of armour and I was inviting people to be brave enough to see through to the other side of it.
The novel is about being courageous and defining yourself despite the odds. It had a really profound impact on me – it gave me a kind of courage that I’ve carried throughout my life.
NATHAN: So then what was the process of you eventually deciding “hey, maybe there’s a play in this”?
CLARENCE: I will hold my hands up and say that it wasn’t necessarily my invention! I had a theatre company back in the 80’s called Double Edge. Two colleagues approached the company and asked if we’d be interested in producing a stage adaptation of this book– I couldn’t believe it was the same novel that I’d encountered when I was 15. At first I didn’t know how it would work, but the second I stopped to really think about it I could suddenly hear the prologue being spoken aloud by an actor and it made so much sense. I thought “wow, this is perfect!”
We did an invited audience performance at The Albany in Deptford and it went down really well. From then onwards, it was a part of my DNA; I always came back to this piece. So when I was going to New York with the RSC, I wanted to seize the opportunity. I contacted the Ellison estate and put on a platform performance at The Armory on Park Avenue. It also was very well received but I still didn’t feel like the true power of the novel had been fully realised.
Later I ended up working with the wonderful Anna Girvan and we got on extremely well. We knew we wanted to do something together and once the Ellison estate gave us the go-ahead and Arts Council England generously funded the R&D, we got to work.
The piece transcends race; it transcends gender; it talks to each and every person individually. That’s why I feel it’s a really important and seminal work that deserves a new platform.
NATHAN: And what was the decision to pair the piece with live music?
CLARENCE: Well in the novel there’s a musical refrain: What did I do to be so black and blue? – Louis Armstrong. So already it has that echoing throughout.
Then I met the fantastic musician Laura Van Der Heijden in Stratford-Upon-Avon. We saw each other perform and were both genuinely moved by what the other had done – there was a real connection and we knew we had to work together. That’s when I got curious: was there a way that Laura could be inspired by Ellison’s words and find a way of expressing the piece musically? Thus began our exploration of how these two mediums could work together.
We then brought our percussionist on board, Richard Olatunde Baker. We wanted to include an African influence alongside the classical sound of the cello.
What we’re always working towards is a true connection; it isn’t a soundtrack. There has to be a real alchemy between Ellison’s writing and the music.
NATHAN: And what challenges does that throw up for you as an actor? Performing with the music?
CLARENCE: It really is a challenge. If it was simply about having an ambient musical accompaniment, all you have to worry about is whether it’s too loud or quiet. In this case, the performance I’m giving has to interact with the performance the musicians are giving. It’s quite unusual because elements of it – much like jazz – have to be improvisational, but we still need a framework in which to operate.
The musicians will throw something up in rehearsals that allows me to respond in the moment. It’s a total conversation. I’ve never done anything quite like that before; we’re absolutely experimenting in a new realm.
NATHAN: The prologue is a real epic mix of incredibly beautiful language infused with these feverish – almost nightmarish – trains of thought. How do you strike that balance?
CLARENCE: Just keep true! Ellison brilliantly uses the conduit of the reefer smoking and that’s what pulls The Man into this altered state of mine; it’s incredibly sophisticated. It frees him from operating in a three-dimensional world and takes him into this other realm. Then he comes out of his drugs trip and it truly feels like a waking dream.
Then, once the words are totally within you, the piece begins to lead you. It’s like a kite.
NATHAN: So finally, what hurdle or challenge are you most excited about taking on this week?
CLARENCE: Well we experimented with something really interesting this morning.
Over the weekend a dear friend of mine, Larrington Walker, sadly passed away. He was a mentor and a trailblazer and I’d actually worked on The Invisible Man with him during one of its earlier iterations. At the time we argued and fought about whether I should perform the piece in my own voice or with an American accent. I was always of the view that the piece was so quintessentially American and I worried my natural accent would jar.
Then, in true synchronicity, this exact topic came up in this morning’s session. Tinu and I discussed the notion that the black experience is so often view through the lens of the American black experience, yet here we are on Kingsland High Road! Like I said, the piece transcends so many things – gender, sexuality, class – and now we’re wondering whether accent could be another one of those things.
So we actually explored some of the text in my own voice. I’d never tried it in my own accent with Larry – I’d love to know what he’d think of it. In a lot of ways I wouldn’t be in this business if it wasn’t for him. A lot of people owe their careers to that little Jamaican man. He didn’t so much take me under his wing as he asked me “who are you going to be?”
Many people have done many great things as a result of knowing Larrington Walker and in a lot of ways this entire project is in testament to him.
NATHAN: A great note to end on, I think. Thank you Clarence.
CLARENCE: Thank you!
So there you have it. Day two has been a fascinating set of discoveries. Tomorrow I’ll be chatting to the music team and getting their unique perspectives on the piece.
Bye for now!