For Understory

I’m Charlie Morrissey. I’m 53.

I’m sitting at my kitchen table in Yorkshire wondering if I have anything useful or interesting to say. 

A lot has changed and I imagine your circumstances are very different from mine – back when I started and now. 

What do I do? I was just teaching a workshop in Freiburg in Germany, and one morning during a discussion, when trying to shed some light on where I was coming from, I said “I’m an artist”. Not sure I’ve ever said that before but there you go – it’s out now and maybe it helps me to clarify something to myself about what I do. I think calling myself an artist rather than a dancer or a choreographer is just more accurate. I do dance, perform, teach, direct, curate, organise. I like to make things, and to work with others to make things happen. And I like to grapple with making sense and non-sense out of what I experience in the world and to do that physically.

I’m interested in processes – things that happen in time and that take time to become something, or to show themselves.

Dance wasn’t something I considered. It just wasn’t anywhere around me when I was young. At some point late in secondary school, drama became an option and it caught my attention – maybe because it was about imagining other possibilities and seemed vaguely queer and provided a refuge from the straightness of the real world I saw around me. I also got to do weird stuff and express myself and make things, which felt like a relief to me.

I decided I wanted to be an actor and started training in theatre. I loved all the physical stuff and the passion and creativity and ideas, but my training felt too conventional. I think I wanted something more raw or messy or more direct or less obvious, or more to engage with the surreal and unfathomable world I felt I was living in. I had come across people in my life who seemed to be doing much more interesting and strange and wonderful things with art than I was finding at college and I wanted some of that.

I heard about a place in Devon called Dartington where it sounded like there was something alternative happening and so I headed there, via a roller-coaster of a year in Brighton discovering myself and the gay scene, meeting and working with performers and artists and activists, and doing site-specific theatre, and community arts projects – making performances in woods, and marquees and museums and car parks – being involved in all aspects of production – building sets and making costumes and devising and performing. There was a lot of loading up vans, and pitching up somewhere to create a show – it was a great and empowering experience to just make stuff and put it out there with not much experience to tell me that there were other ways of doing it. There’s a kind of innocence and freedom in that that the benefit of experience could only stifle.

And Dartington was a lot of fun, and it turned my brain inside out. The structure of the course at the time was pretty haphazard and that suited me fine. The brilliant powerhouse that is Katie Duck was there and blew my mind with her approach to dance and improvisation, and the way she treated everyone as if they were already an artist and would bring all the artists she was working with at the time to get together in a studio and just play.

And discovering dance and improvisation was like – “Oh, yeah – of course”; you just get up and do it and it’s about everything that you can think, feel do or imagine; make something out of everything right here on the spot. It just felt so direct and engaging and liberating.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Dartington was very much a course for theatre makers with a focus either on writing, choreography or direction. This emphasis on making was useful for me. I could still perform, but a performer could also be the artist and maker of the work – that was key.

And just having lots of experiences; seeing performance by artists I had never heard of who were using performance as a medium through which to shift and disrupt ways of seeing and understanding the world, working with choreographers whose ideas I couldn’t quite grasp but could reach towards; being introduced to new concepts that I really had to bend my mind around; lots of new processes of making, like the Greek director who came from Amsterdam and had us all running around naked in the studio and gardens wearing one high-heeled shoe doing endurance tasks and working ourselves up into an altered state – it was a kind of frenzy of discovery; and taking magic mushrooms and running wild in the countryside and then going to class the next morning with Sasha Waltz looking at me like she knew exactly what I’d been up to; making performances with whatever and whoever was to hand in short time spans inside and out and just putting stuff out there; and getting arrested for shoplifting socks in Woolworths; and not knowing much at all but thinking I did or pretending I did and that being liberating in itself.

All of this was happening within the context of some major events in the world – the Berlin Wall came down, Nelson Mandela was released from prison, Margaret Thatcher resigned and the Gulf War was about to kick off so there was plenty to think and shout and get excited and angry about. And it was pre-mobile phones and social media, so all that excitement and anger had to be expressed face to face.

And in this time I met and got the chance to work with lots of artists, some of whom I still know and work with today.

After college, I was lucky enough to be able to move to Brighton and get work with companies I already had ties with, so I didn’t have to think too much about what I was going to do to begin with. There was lots more loading vans up to do, and going places and making events happen in settings with different communities. I did all kinds of stuff – a lot of it wasn’t dance but all of it arts related, and all of it engaged me in different ways and gave me a sense of how performance and art can happen anywhere.

I don’t really know or can’t remember what kind of career I expected or wanted, and it still changes all the time depending on what changes around me, and on what I’ve experienced up to this point; things that seemed attractive at one time are less so now and vice versa.

As a white cis male I recognise more and more how the odds were already stacked in my favour; a fact that I was a lot less aware of back then, and it’s something I’m questioning, digging into and appreciating much more now. It shines a different light on everything. The reality of a situation can really change when you look back on it with more information. Not history re-written but history looked at with the lights switched on. I also see that my privileges are particular and complex like everyone’s and the work I need to do is a process of unlearning , re-examining and finding alternative ways to operate.

I’m not sure if anything went to plan. I can’t even remember what my plans were exactly. I never had any ambitions – or the kind of training that would point me towards becoming a dancer in a dance company. It never appealed or even occurred to me. I wanted to make my own things and to work collaboratively with people.

I started teaching straight away. I’ve always loved it – it’s always felt like a natural thing for me to do. I like being in a room with other people moving and I love how teaching is a way to practice and test things and find stuff out with other people. I think the teaching is what has sustained me throughout my career. It’s a constant – is always changing and developing and it often pays the bills.

I have also worked variously, as a cleaner, an electrician’s assistant, a labourer, a roadie, a waiter, kitchen staff, warehouse worker and a few other things besides. Those things have also contributed to the paying of bills and to giving me different perspectives on the work I do and how different people see it, or don’t see it, in a wider world.

I met Steve Paxton at Dartington and was asked to join a performance project he was involved with which was shown at Riverside Studios in London. That connection was pretty defining for me and has continued ever since. I also continue to work with Katie Duck and was introduced to many other people, ideas and opportunities through both of these artists and others. 

Many of the best things that happened to me were unintended or just turned up. 

I hadn’t expected a pregnancy to come out of my fairly short-lived heterosexual interlude at college, but that certainly did happen, and now I have an amazing 28 year old daughter. That was entirely unplanned, nor would we have, but how defining and brilliant are the unplanned things sometimes. 

I also didn’t expect many of the job offers that I got and they often came years after first connecting with someone. Some things take time and not all of things you invest in pay off but some do.

There have been disappointments. People sometimes promise you the world and then when you call them to collect it, they don’t answer the phone. You work hard to get the funding, invest in a project with everything you’ve got, and then your application is rejected; then there are those amazing “opportunities” that are not at all what they were cracked up to be; and the jobs I took that just didn’t fit so I felt like a total imposter (sometimes you just need the money); the people you looked up to who thought you were special, and later changed their minds; and I fucked plenty of things up and had bouts of intense and debilitating depression, and panicked about money and made plenty of bad decisions and only learned from some of them. 

I keep trying to remind myself what art is for or what it does. I think it’s a place for transgression, for questioning, for throwing cats among pigeons and pulling at the fabric of constructed or accepted realities and structures. When it becomes commodified, it gets more difficult to do any of that, and leads artists away from the art by squeezing them down corridors that implicitly insist on models which ultimately serve white capitalist agendas – all through the dangling of a carrot of money and status and “success”. New models need to be explored and tested, and old ones need dismantling. 

So, 2020 has been a quite a year. It also offers an opportunity and a challenge to rethink things.

One thing it makes me think, brings me back to early experiences of creating work and to the empowerment of making stuff with what you have around and on the cheap. If I strive towards a theatre which requires big production budgets and marketing bills, then I have to rely on having a lot of funding. Some things need a lot of money and other things don’t, so it could be good to do some stuff while you’re waiting for the big one to show up.

I want to work on some un-building and re-learning as I come out of 2020 and want to be part of developing new structures alongside a wider collection of voices and perspectives. I’m asking how to contribute to the de-colonisation of the dance world that I operate in firstly by noticing how it is colonised. 

I’m looking to be a part of networks of support and questioning between artists and to figure ways to just make and show work without the need to be supported by big organisations and institutions. I think this means that artists can empower each other to do what they do, and this will contribute to the changing of power systems that operate within the arts. 

Advice sucks; curiosity will sustain you for a lifetime; treat people with respect; don’t be a tosser; look and listen; keep moving; relish those brilliant times; once you start trying to please people it’s difficult to stop; a fuck up now might seem like an opportunity later; make things and share them; comparisons are odious; there are people around you who you can work with; be kind; projections of “success” aren’t all they’re cracked up to be; your teachers and all those experienced artists you’ll meet can’t even begin to know the new kinds of world you could be instrumental in creating; nothing can be deleted, so include it and move on; you see things differently; notice who’s in your classes, your groups, your work and who’s not and then ask why and what that means for the work; ask what structures you’re working inside of and in relation to; it’s all going to go by really fast; do it now; don’t listen to me – I talk bullshit.

I’m still sitting at my kitchen table and wondering whether I’m saying anything useful. Rob – my partner of 22 years is sitting on the other side of the table tapping away on another computer. We’re asking a lot of questions together and we’re working more and more with each other organising dance events at Wainsgate Chapel just round the corner and running a community café over the road. We’ve only realised the possibility of working together like this in more recent years and now it’s really getting going. Some things take time.

I’m thinking about all of the great stuff that people coming out of education and people who aren’t are going to do. Stuff I can’t yet imagine. I want to support and make space for some of it if I can. And I want to keep making and wondering what I’m doing and failing and making the best work I’ve ever made, and changing the world from the ground up and with the lights on.

Thanks for reading.