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Jenna Watt - How You Gonna Live Your Dash

When Jenna Watt went to see Werner Herzog's film, Into The Abyss, things changed. Herzog's documentary focuses on two inmates on Death Row, and at one point, a state executioner who's just had to oversee the killing of a woman for the first time begins to to think about his life. Someone observes that on your tombstone between the words Born and Died and the year of each there is a dash which sums up everything inbetween. How you gonna live your dash, he says, is up to you.

“When I heard that phrase something just clicked,” says Watt. “I'd never heard it expressed that way about how you're going to live, and whether you're going to move forward or stay where you are. All of that seemed really poignant.”

Around the same time, Watt found herself drawn to the photographs of Italian artist Filippo Minelli, whose Silence/Shapes series of images used different coloured smoke bombs to illustrate everyday explosions disrupting their immediate surroundings.

“I thought it would be good to use this aesthetic of these images of smoke to look at life,” Watt says.

The direct result of fusing such seemingly disparate elements is How You Gonna Live Your Dash, Watt's new show, which opens at Platform in Easterhouse next week prior to a short tour. How You Gonna Live Your Dash looks set to be a dramatic meditation on the sort of everyday epiphanies when people 'choose to detonate their own lives, the smokey fallout, and how they piece together a new future,' as the show's publicity blurb puts it. Some of its material is culled from real life testimonies of people who turned their own lives upside down.

“I knew people who had transformed their lives,” says Watt, “and had conversations with them about how they changed, what was wrong, and how they were feeling before they made the change. People had been bottling things up on a serious level until it had to come out, and I wanted to know what that might look like and sound like.”

How You Gonna Live Your Dash was originally supported by The Arches, before the iconic Glasgow multiple arts space was closed in contentious fashion. With Watt going on to explore the piece further as part of the Traverse Theatre's Hothouse project, the piece is now co-produced with Platform in association with Showroom, a new independent production company that aims to focus on providing a support network for developing artists.

“This definitely feels like a much bigger piece than anything else I've done,” says Watt, who will perform her new show with actress Ashley Smith. “It's challenging me as a theatre-maker, both in terms of telling the stories through the images we're creating and through writing. Using pyrotechnics as well, it's very carefully put together.”

Such attention to detail may come from the way in which Watt divides her time between her own projects and working with other companies. Watt's early solo works were seen at Arches Live! and the National Review of Live Art, while she has worked as assistant director with companies including Lung Ha's, the Traverse Theatre and the National Theatre of Scotland. It was the success of her 2012 show, Flaneurs, however, that gave her the confidence to tackle something as big as How You Gonna Live Your Dash.

“That spurred me on to keep on working.” she says. “It felt very much like a rites of passage, and I definitely felt more settled afterwards in what I do. It felt like I'd set my stall out a bit, and I don't think moving forward with this show and everything else could have happened without all that.”

Watt grew up in Inverness, where she studied acting before moving to Edinburgh. By that time she already recognised that acting in its conventional sense wasn't the right fit for her, and she was one of the first group of students on Queen Margaret University's drama and theatre arts course to specialise in contemporary performance. It was while on the course she was exposed to a panoply of influence, and she cites left-field icons including Diamanda Galas, Ron Athey and Marina Abramovic as having a profound influence.

“It felt like they each had a way of expressing themselves in their work in a way that I wanted to make work,” she says.

At the same time as she was absorbing this new world, Watt was working front of house at the Traverse, where she was seeing an endless parade of new plays.

“I always had an interest in more narrative-based work as well,” she says, “and seeing all that work at the Traverse really helped me understand how theatre works, and the scope and the scale of what it can achieve. In terms of my education it was as important as anything I did at university.”

Beyond How You Gonna Live Your Dash, Watt is already developing her next show, Faslane. She is also attached to Magnetic North theatre company as part of the Federation of Scottish Theatre's assistant directors bursary scheme. Out of this, she looks set to be working on a new project with Rob Drummond, another writer-performer who has moved his work into different arenas.

Jumping between what some presume to be two camps doesn't always make Watt easy to define.

“There have definitely been some opportunities that I haven't got because people think they don't know how to work with me unless I take on a more traditional role of a playwright,” she says, “except they do. Being defined in that way seems really strange to me, because I want my practice to be as rich and diverse as possible, and having to define myself seems really restricting. I have tremendous respect for what playwrights do, but that's not really what I do. It's a problem I come up against a lot, and I think that's why I'm reluctant to fall in line with it.”

Such quiet steeliness suggests that, beyond her research, Watt too has taken some kind of personal leap.

With this in mind, how might she be living her own dash?

“I have to think about that question a lot,” she says after much mulling over. “The temptation is to think about things in terms of what happens at New Year, when you say you're going to go to the gym or read a book once a month, but for me, that's not what the question is about. That's all a commodified version of happiness.

“For me, the question is much more about looking at the negative things in your life, and answering whether you should cut those things out of your life or you should use them somehow to make things better. That's what interests me, and that's sometimes a difficult thing to look at. But how do I live my dash? Maybe not like a nihilist.”

How You Gonna Live Your Dash, Platform, Glasgow, January 28-29; Eden Court, Inverness, February 2; Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, February 3; CAST, Doncaster, February 6; MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling, February 10; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, February 11-13.
www.jennawatt.co.uk

The Herald, January 19th 2016

ends

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