Available for Opportunity
– extracts from an interview with good cop bad cop
good cop bad cop is the creative partnership of John Rowley and Richard Huw Morgan. After meeting and collaborating as members of seminal Welsh performance company Brith Gof, in 1990, they began to reinvest their wages in a radical exploration of performance possibilities.
This began in 1992 with Das Wunden, a collaboration with Slovenian sound-worker Robert Merdzo, performing in a theater, an art gallery and a night club. In 1996 good cop bad cop (gcbc) was formed through the replacement of Merdzo with photographer Paul Jeff. From 2006 Rowley and Morgan have operated as a duo with the inclusion of invited guests and audience members as and when necessary.
gcbc have produced over forty conceptually led works that operate at the fluid boundary between experimental theatre performance and fine-art performance. There is rarely a common development process in works, ideas might remain dormant for years or be acted on spontaneously according to available opportunities. While performances are frequently in non-theatrical spaces, this is also a question of circumstance rather than any fetishization of “the real”, and may, or may not, be either site-responsive or site-specific.
Duration of performances is similarly variable, according to the needs of the work, but frequently tends towards extended durations. Their weekly radio programme “Pitch”, which began as part of the “Croeso I Gymry/u Fwyaf!” project in 2011, has now been running for 119 hours over a period of 3 years.
(The following are extracts from an interview with Richard Huw Morgan and John Rowley about the work of good cop bad cop conducted by Heike Roms and James Tyson on 9 March 2014, Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff.)
JR – I think one of the reasons why we may have never done interviews like this before, and the reason why I work with Richard, is because we don’t have to explain anything to anyone else, and this is why the work is how it is. We don’t have to explain anything or very much to each other as to why we are doing something.
We don’t talk about the process. Anything might be possible and anyone has a stake, which may be equal or unequal to each other, from the very start to the very end. So even in the performance, I can be looking at Richard and at some point thinking “Oh god, that not a good decision for me, I don’t like that.” But that’s the way we work, and I accept that and it forces me to make some other decision. I might just say, “Well I’m going to do this anyway. I don’t like what he’s doing. He might not like what I’m doing, but we’re going to do it anyway, and we’ll deal with the consequences of that in two or five minutes time.”
Making work on invitation is a practical way of existing for us. Sometimes the longer we’ve spent on bits of work the more they’ve fallen apart, or become not the most interesting pieces. So when you get an invitation that says, “We want you to make a work for this festival. You can do it on Thursday night”, we can say, “OK, we’ll make ourselves available for that and we’ll work on it two weeks before it happens.” And that’s the way we’ve worked since 1992.
RHM: Because we’ve only responded to available opportunities, we’ve never actually built anything up where we have to get into making things in order to maintain something.
JR: Das Wunden’s 18:40 20:40 we did three times, and after that we thought, “Why would we want to do this anymore?”. And that’s probably what’s affected touring for us.
RHM: I would not have come to this way of working without having had the wonderful situation with Brith Gof, where there were regular periods of work with regular money, which also gave you regular time away from work. But because we were bound up in that way of earning money it meant you couldn’t really plan or structure your own thing, it had to be this reactive thing, and I suppose it’s still the same. Because there is something about the work that is ideas-led, it is reactive to what is going on around us. Rather than “Oh we’ve got to make a product that’s got to do something within this whole context and find a niche.”
JR: A lot of the work early on was about drinking together and being together as friends, and once you start drinking and talking, an idea comes out for a show. And you think, “let’s do that, let’s try and do that”.
RHM: And there’s no reason not to do that.
JR: At the time Chapter was an easy place to make work. You could go to Janek Alexander [then Theatre Programmer and later Director of Chapter) and say “We’ve got this idea, it sounds a bit silly” and he’d say, “Well, you can have some space to work, but there’s not much money”. And we’d say “that’s all right, we’ll take a box office split or whatever.”
RHM: It’s about building a context. That’s why I like the work that we make because it is a deliberate poke at the entertainment arts world which says “Here are these nice objects of desire”. So it’s about making something which is a bit shit, and saying that we’re actually really proud of this, it’s a serious statement that’s going out there.
JR: I think we’ve always made things that look good. We’ve always been concerned with what the thing looks like. The things always look credible, artistic, well-thought out. Even in their shoddiness, it’s a considered shoddiness. There’s a part of me that is always trying to entertain people, and when we are thinking about ideas, we’re always thinking about where we are in the work in relation to where the audience is and what they are seeing. And that’s all about trying to give them an experience – maybe we can’t call it “entertainment”, but we are considering what the audience is experiencing. We can’t control it, but we can certainly say, “Have a look at this. Now have a look this. Now pull back and have a look at this.”
The thing that helped us from very early on is that we both worked with Mike Pearson in Brith Gof. We went to the workshops, which were about “This is the way to make a show: you have seven sections of ten minutes”. That was both in our heads, so when we made the first show, it wasn’t like, “What do we do now?”. We said, “Let’s divide it up into six parts of ten minutes, this part is Robert on his guitar, this part is us falling on our knees.”
RHM: But for the second one, Caucus, we just threw that out of the window and said, “We’re not going to talk to each other at all. I don’t care what you are doing. You don’t care what I’m doing”.
JR: And we invited a lot of other people into that one as well. We didn’t talk to them and tell them what to do either.
RHM: The reason why I got into performance was to explore what an “us” produces, which is about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Which is why I see us as a partnership, rather than a company, because a company is the object that you try and feed to do something, whereas this is about what happens when what is going in the world and what is going on in your head, and what is going on in books and tv and stuff, somehow grows.It’s entirely ideas led, rather than end-user led.
JR: I think we’re always unconsciously trying to surprise ourselves with whatever we’re doing. We find something to do and then within that thing, we don’t really know how to drive that thing, but all of a sudden by some sort of accident you think “That is the way to drive that particular idea, and you think “God, that is a revelation, let’s go along with until it stops working.” And then you find the next piece, and you think, “Well, we’ve got an idea, we’ve got some lighting idea, how does that fit with that thing.” And that processing starts happening and the processing comes from experience, what you’ve done and what you’ve seen.
HR: I think what I enjoy about your work is this sense of decision making in the moment. And this is a quality that I associate more with performance art.
JR: It’s about these irrevocable acts. “Shit that’s happened, now what do we do with that?”
HR: There’s something about the unpredictability of this, in spite of its tight structure. How much work goes into setting the frame?
JR: The safety net which allows us not to rehearse is always that structural set-up, because no matter what happens to us we know that this is happening there, there are five sections of this, so you are never completely “Oh, I don’t know what to do and where it’s going to go for the next half hour”, because you’ve always got something that you know is going on even if it is just that structure.
RHM: With Mas o Amser we did work out beforehand what we were going to do.
JR: But we never actually rehearsed the action, because that’s not very interesting. Because you don’t want to be bored by the time you put it in front of an audience for the first time.
HR: So rehearsals are more like negotiations.
RHM: They are conversations really.
JR: Yes, we might say, “Well, you could do that there, couldn’t you?” And you say, “I could, or I might not.” That’s what you usually say, Richard! I try to get you to say, “Yes I’m going to do that!” gcbc is me and Richard and our moods, our personalities. What we watch on telly, it’s the books we read, it’s the arguments we have, it’s the people we see outside of it. It’s bringing the outside in. Not necessarily making sense of it, but trying to process it.
RHM: We thought that what we might be doing with all this is struggling to communicate. It is really trying to say something but I’ve got no idea what it is trying to say, apart from the fact that if you put different things together in different combinations you get something completely different. And they might be quite ordinary, every day things…
HR: How important is the audience’s presence?
JR: I think in the work we make it is everything. When we make the work we are always thinking about the audience and how they might feel about something. From the Brith Gof days, from those pieces of work the audience was frightened by, you know you are doing something to the audience. I think we always try to get them to feel something. The question I am always asking myself is, “What would I want to be watching if I was seeing this thing now?” And putting myself in the position of an audience saying, “How would I like to react to this thing? What would I like to be shown? How would I like to be shown it? What’s it going to do to me?” When I go to the theatre I’m looking for those kind of experiences that don’t make me just sit in the seat and feel nothing or experience nothing physically. That’s one of the big steering things for all the pieces or what I do in them. I’m hoping or I imagine that’s the same for Richard.
RHM: I think I’m intrigued as to why audiences are there, and to give them something to carry on this relationship of intrigue, with them thinking, “why is he doing that?”
JR: Because we’ve done so much work together and alone, when I’m performing live in something it’s not like this shamanistic thing, which you see in a lot of performance art, where I’m trying to leave my body or have this out of body experience. I always feel a bit of a machine thinking “OK, I know what happens. If my eyes meet the eyes of the audience, I’m doing something.” It’s a technical act. The way I’m sitting: am I going to sit away from you, am I going to turn my head? Or if I walk beside you, I know I’m going to have an effect. And that’s a technical, learnt thing and I quite like that. It’s not this kind of actorly thing that says “I am inhabiting this beast”, I don’t like that at all. That’s what drama school did to me, I turned that off very early on. It didn’t make any sense to me, people saying they were having these experiences. I like giving the effect that I might be in that state, but to be fully aware of the technical things that I’m doing to achieve that.
JT: Could you describe any particular or defining differences between 1994 to 2014 in Cardiff as a site for the investigations of gcbc?
RHM: It feels much more alien now. The work felt perfectly normal and natural when we were first doing it.
HR: Why was that, because there was more similar work around?
RHM: Yes, both domestically produced and the stuff that came here. Particularly since 1999 when Wales had its semi-national aspirations achieved, we’ve become a cheaper version of what happens elsewhere, and that’s the game people are playing these days. However experimental or not-the-National-Theatre-of-GB [sic] or not-the-National-Theatre-Scotland that National Theatre Wales might be, it’s not set up as a place of experiment and learning and education.
We came out of a very particular circumstance of an art-led company with Brith Gof, rather than a policy and how-it-fits-into-the-system kind of structure. I don’t think things like that exist anymore that are attractive to people like me. Prior to Brith Gof, I had no interest in theatre or the arts, and I think it’s only when you’ve got an arts scene which is attractive to people who aren’t already in the arts that you’ve got development.
JR: Because I moved from Essex to Wales, I’d have to explain to a lot of people, even when I’d go abroad, why I’d come to Cardiff. They’d say, “Why would you go to Wales to do what you want to do?” and I kept on saying, “Well it does feel a place where things can happen. Other things that aren’t the mainstream”. When we were here to start with, that really was the case. But if someone asked me that question now, I would say, “I don’t know…what would you find here now?”