Getting a sense of Pauline Mayers before her new show What If I Told You opens at The Royal Exchange Studio ahead of going to The Edinburgh Festival. Warm, funny and sharply intelligent.
What led you into dance? Did you start from an early age?
I’ll give you two versions because there’s what I remember and what my Mother remembers. There’s being 13 and although I had a very happy childhood, things were not going quite so well at 13/14. And the only way I could be out of the house was to do something constructive so I went along with a friend to the White Lion Youth Centre in Islington….My Mum would say from an early age 7/8 she remembers me trying to tap dance. I would try to emulate Gene Kelly laughs. My Mum,”You always wanted to be a dancer.” There’s what I remember and what my Mother witnessed. So somewhere in between.
I’m actually a Psychotherapist. That’s really typical of how we remember our past and how others define our past. Often they are very different, very different stories indeed.
YES! There’s also something about what you remember and what you tell yourself you remember laughs based on scant pieces of information you kinda make a whole- “Oh that must be what happened”…..I think memory and history are all tied up with subjectivity, almost never objective and coming from various different angles. I kind of imagine it as a big 360 degree motion capture thing. There’s yourself in the middle and you have all these cameras swirling around you and depending on where the camera is people remember that part or version of you……Certainly doing the show, this piece; and looking back on photographs of me at Secondary School. I remember me as a very quiet child yet pictures show 13 year old me with my leg cocked up as high as I could get it so I clearly was not the shy child I recall!!
Perhaps you were a shy child but movement released something in you?
I think that’s definitely true, I do, there’s an absolute exhilaration and freedom. Movement was also like a Rubik cube, a challenge to unlock and solve, and I enjoyed trying to get my body round these tricky ways of moving. The getting up and performing was always secondary to the act of developing myself as a physical being. That curiosity of what happens if I do this? It’s the absolute laboratory laughs I used to absolutely love that.
So you eventually went to The Rambert School?
My training was intense, amazing and wondrous; also terrifying, depressing and lonely. A few teachers had a very fixed idea of what dancers should look like and I didn’t fit the look of the dancer that they were imagining in their heads.
How did you cope with that?
It was my drive to be the thing that I wanted to be. My philosophy was I’m paying the same amount of fees as everyone else so I’m going to take your information and I’m going to be like a sponge and be this thing that you say I can’t be!!
That makes sense from a psychological perspective. We tend to adapt or rebel!
Absolutely! A teacher saying “Oh Pauline dear. Go to the back of the class. You really can’t do this.” I remember saying, “I can’t do it yet but the point of being here is that you teach me so I can!”
You were clearly there for a reason…
I think I felt if I didn’t do the dancing I would die…..It was a matter of life and death. How I felt when I danced was euphoric, falling in love, it was like I could be me….. I’ve tried to leave dance a number of times in the last few years. I can’t do anything else- not in a negative way but in a – I would not be me if I don’t do it.
You left dance in 2011 and moved into choreography. Was that about what’s happens to dancers at a certain age?
Absolutely. It’s a very big question especially for certain forms of dance. I came up against a wall of NO. I had all these amazing experiences dancing travelling around the World. I had an extensive set of skills and yet I was being told NO.. I was 41 and I’ve done this thing called Dance but I’m not being respected for that. I wasn’t being listened to. I wasn’t even being acknowledged.
That can happen to women of a certain age and you weren’t that old!!!
When it comes down to people of colour it’s like the Highlander effect. There can be only One! It really felt like I wasn’t that one. It felt like me coming in and wanting to tell unique stories was not needed because we’ve already got our person. I needed to walk away for my own sanity. In 2011 I shut the door on dance. It felt like theatre welcomed me with absolutely open arms. I had all these extraordinary collaborations. I realised I can contribute, The ideas I have in my head create value to any collaboration I do. So between 2011-2015 I worked solidly whereas 2005-2011 I was constantly on the dole!!!
So the rules in dance and theatre seem very different?
In the theatre I was just this curious bird who just wanted to find things out from people and that was ok. I could investigate like in a laboratory. In dance arenas only certain people were given permission to frame those questions.
I’m intrigued- through out our conversation you’ve mentioned terms like experimenting, investigating, curiosity. I know you mention Dr J Marion Sims in the piece- what made you reference his experiments?
His experiments had an air of theatrics. He wanted an audience and doctors came from all over to see him create these tortuous gynaecological experiments or mutilations on black women. He thought they felt no pain so used no ether. Even for his time what he did was extreme. He was a celebrity surgeon using black slave women as they were not valued.
How do you move between such a grim story and the lighter moments in your show?
I think it’s humour. My own story could be seen as really grim laughs Right- young girl from Hackney leaves home at 15, ended up being a dancer til 30, then being freelance then 7 years having no money and bailiffs at the door, having depression and then the last 6 years full of amazing work. I love laughing and the joy of hearing people laugh.
So how did you come to work with Chris Goode?
Huge laughter…I had decided to go into theatre. I had a Twitter account but no real idea of its power. I was up at 1am and this tweet from West Yorkshire Playhouse said first person to tweet back gets a wristband for TRANSFORM 2011. Chris was doing something called ‘open house’-based around Our Town come and join- you can observe or take part. I hadn’t noticed last bit and being a dutiful dancer turned up with notebook and pen.I thought I’d be observing how theatre is made but I opened the door to Chris and a group of actors sat in a circle. He gave me the biggest smile and said “Hello would you like to come and join us?” Before I knew what was happening I was involved with all the experimentation with the actors and then performed with them that night!! I went back another 2 nights and it was the most exhilarating thing I had done in a really long time.
Chris is extraordinary. He never leads the way you would imagine.The people in the room have all the skills and the attributes within them. They just need a space explore that so Chris was holding the space for all of us to meet, to be curious and to experiment and look at questions-What if….? Shall we…..? Such beautiful open language .. He then invited me to work with him again at Mayfest in Bristol and again at TRANSFORM 2012. It’s the curiosity. Nothing is quite as it seems because its not.
I find that process fascinating. Like light bulb moments.
Yes absolutely. I think he has a very unique gift. Virtually everyone I have met who works with him have opened out and jumped forward. It’s quite spectacular the way he brings people together at a crossroads in their lives. They are somehow transformed working with him. Working with him felt like the Universe opened up for me in a way I’d never seen before…And it continues to do this to this day and I feel it’s from that very first experience of working with him.
In “What if I told you?” are you aiming to facilitate that kind of experience for the audience?
Yes I suppose in a way.
Your show sounds like full on audience partipation.
It is. I prefer to term it as an experience of walking in my shoes.
Audience participation can be limiting. You can ask them to do a task and they may or not do it. I feel we are all being story tellers in the space. We are creating and recreating moments from my life and moments from the past to inform where we go from this moment on. We are creating a memory together. That what the show does is the conduit to the Koan which is the second half of the show and is more important.
Koan is a Japanese word for public thought. It’s the audience thinking and speaking and reflecting together. It’s a radical act of self care and empowerment. The space is held by a facilitator who leads the discussion, the poet Khadijh Ibrahiim. It enables people to have a space to pause and reflect – Now I’ve seen this what does it mean to be human?
Are you present in the room during the Koan or do you step away?
I’m nowhere to be seen!!!laughs That‘s a very conscious thought. I’ve done my bit! I’ve given my experience and had the audience live in my shoes for an hour.
Perhaps you need time to process that too…..
What I want is for the audience to come to their own conclusion. They already have a sense of the idea of colour prejudice as ridiculous. Yet we are still dealing with the complexities of it. We are using a very loaded term by using the term race. We are imagining it far bigger and greater than the actual act of racism is. The slave trade was about making money and eventually racism was tied into that. There are periods of history where skin colour is used as a means to separate and disconnect us. I really feel what hurts you, hurts me. We are all human beings. There is only one race.
Slavery went on for 400 years, The mass movement of people from an entire continent in a machine-like way. It sought to eradicate the history and culture if a continent and replace it with something that never came from there.
When something happens on that huge a scale for that long it can almost start to lose its true impact. It’s too big.
Absolutely. In What If I Told You I want to say to people we are human beings first and foremost. We love. We hate. We forgive. We have empathy and compassion in equal measure. What’s your experience? What’s mine? How do they connect? What’s the common denominator? And then move forward from that- we might have a chance to really talk about this in ways that we need to talk in order to heal.
If one person goes to What If I Told You and is changed by that experience and says “I’m thinking differently about skin colour and I want to share that with others” then I have done exactly what I set out to do.
It feels like a really timely piece to be performed especially here in Manchester.
We love and we hate. It’s a piece that grows with time not diminishes. It’s a piece to reflect on. People are surprised by the horror of it, by the joy of it, by the challenge of it.
I look forward to seeing it Pauline. Good luck with taking it to The Edinburgh Festival.
SHOWING AT THE ROYAL EXCHANGE STUDIO 19/20 JUNE