The art of listening – a conversation with Leo Burtin
Is there a greater insight to the intimacies of life, then a diary? A (mostly honest) narrative, dictated by the raw and immediate emotions of everyday experience. Within the ordinariness of his grandmother’s words, performer and writer Leo Burtin draws upon the beauty in the banality of her diaries, contrasting with her unordinary and surprising death. In The Midnight Soup, Burtin begins in the nucleus of personal experience, and slowly opens up the conversation onto bigger questions of shared experience, and our relationships to each other. We talk about what it means to listen actively, and the power of audience conversation.
“The Midnight Soup is based on one of my grandmother’s diaries, and she kept diaries of her whole life. It doesn’t really have any feelings in it. She talks about the weather, what she ate that day. It’s very mundane I guess. And growing up I was very aware of the diary as she wouldn’t write it privately, she’d write it at the kitchen table. I was always curious about it but I was never allowed to read it. But at the end of 2007 she gave up and she gave it to me and I was allowed to look and read it. I read some of it and was moved by the poetry of banality but also how important that was.”
All the work I make comes from a very personal place. It might have varying degrees of fiction and there are elements that are rooted in truth but it’s still a piece of art.
His grandmother’s diaries, prolific and factual, reminds me of the diaries of artist and long term recluse Henry Darger. His journals were full of one sentence entries, often just commenting on the weather, or what he had eaten for supper. A short, clinical snapshot of the day, across several years of his life was a beautiful insight into his simple existence, and his ordinary experience. As Burtin spoke of his grandmother, I couldn’t help but think about how a diary is seen as not only an extension of the self, but an unconscious friend that quietly listens to even the most banal of thoughts.
“My grandmother died in 2012 before I made The Midnight Soup. What I was working on at the time was a show about cultural identity which had the food making element in it, and was still concerned about the ideas of banality. And whilst my grandmothers life was ordinary, the way she died was unusual as she committed suicide when she was 78. No one could have guessed that could have happened.”
Burtin importantly pointed out that it’s widely known that young men are most likely to attempt suicide, yet older people are more likely to achieve it. With a heavy heart, and this important knowledge behind him, the start of The Midnight Soup followed, and allowed conversations to flow regarding our relationships with the elderly, and our thoughts on death.
“All the work I make comes from a very personal place. It might have varying degrees of fiction and there are elements that are rooted in truth but it’s still a piece of art. In many ways The Midnight Soup is about my grandmother, about my cultural heritage. But it’s also about death in general, about memory, about community and it’s also about suicide and our relationship as a society with older people. Whilst at first it seems quite indulgent, it opens a door to a bigger conversation, or at least that’s the hope.”
Audience interaction seems to weave its way through the core of Burtin’s work, both solo and in partnership with fellow artist Ali Matthews. Co-authorship, as he liked to call it, influences and shapes the content of his practise.
“What I like to do as an artist is propose a set of questions or set of thoughts and not have them as the truth… In The Midnight Soup there is still a hierarchy as I sit at the head of the table but it’s a much more communal space and the conversation with the audience is much more direct.”
Burtin speaks passionately about his practise, often centred around personal encounters to reveal the fruitfulness of intimate conversation. What particularly struck me was his thoughts on the power of idle conversation, and how rich a performance can be, when a spectator suddenly becomes the body and influence of its content. Burtin’s previous works, such as Between Us and Breaking Bread , are rooted in one to one performances, and shared experience, allowing each encounter to be much more intimate.
“A lot of my practise is about meeting people. And what I’m interested in providing is distractions – I find it a lot easier to talk to someone in a much more free and creative way if I’m doing something, like I’ll walk and talk on the phone. There’s something about doing something together that means you’re not in your head as much and it feels much more visceral. So The Midnight Soup is built on those distractions as we’re making a meal together. You’re having a conversation with people sat around you whilst you’re chopping onions so it allows for a safe space and makes sure if you don’t want to talk about that, you can talk about something else like how you cry when you chop onions. There’s a number of distractions built into The Midnight Soup so the conversation is as natural as possible.”
Highlighted, are the glimpses of temporary communities that form within the performance space, and I’m made aware of how every show presents a different network of thoughts and questions depending on the audience members present.
“Some people will self organise and the conversation will be really rich, sometimes just a few people talk a lot and some not say anything, sometimes it’s shared. But we’ve built it in mind that maybe one day no one will say anything and that will be a different piece but that’s ok. As a performer its really beautiful to meet people every time. And my hope is that over the course of 2.5 hours a temporary community is created. There is no guarantee that that will happen, but the way it’s constructed encourages that. And it means that each of those communities are very different depending on whose there.”
As a performer its really beautiful to meet people every time. My hope is that over the course of 2.5 hours a temporary community is created.
When giving so much responsibility to the audience, there are questions of censorship in the work, but Burtin positively allows the flow of the conversation to be free of censorship, and encourages the diversity of opinion, on subjects that may appear difficult to some.
“All conversations are valuable and I would never want to censor them. It’s very clear in the piece that whatever views or thoughts I have, they’re my concerns and opinions and I would like to hear yours. I’m not here to argue anything. I’m here to tell you a story and see what’s the biggest conversation we can have from that.”
When talking about influences, he mentions friend and mentor Rajni Shah. Her musical Glorious is shaped and re-built by local communities, allowing the show to exist temporarily and in constant motion. From hearing about the importance of conversation, it was clear that Shah’s ethos was a turning point in the way Burtin thought about writing for theatre. He then highlighted the importance of listening and when speaking of his key influences, spoke of artists that understand the art of listening and speaking to their audiences, and reflecting that in the body of the performance.
“A lot of her practise is about listening and teaching yourself about how to listen actively. It’s about community and friendship and it’s nourished me in a way that no one else has.
I’m not here to argue anything. I’m here to tell you a story and see what’s the biggest conversation we can have from that.
Listening is really key to the work and brings in part of my life that is completely unrelated to theatre. I’m also a certified life coach, and most of the time the work I do as a coach is to do with people who are undertaking a big project or personal development but in a completely different context. Most of the work as a coach is to sit back and listen. I was training as a coach at the very beginning of making The Midnight Soup. I don’t coach people in the midnight soup that would be completely wrong, but I guess the position I adopt in my listening as a coach and in the midnight soup has parallels, and if I hadn’t studied to be a coach, I think the show would look very different today.”
The Midnight Soup allows us to reflect upon ourselves as a network of people and even if only for a few hours, respond to the questions, concerns and thoughts of those who experience life in its fast and temporal state. It is maybe with the distraction of communal meal making, that Burtin quietly encourages the art of conversation, opening up on those things we often face alone.