In 28th January 2020, Imitating the Dog’s performance Night of the Living Dead REMIX opened at Leeds Playhouse. Seven performers recreate the original film using props of various levels of fidelity.
Night of the Living Dead REMIX is technically a shot-for-shot recreation of George A. Romero’s seminal zombie film of the same name. However this doesn’t make it a translation. Psycho was remade by Gus Van Sant, shot-for-shot, in 1998. Without going into whether or not the remake was successful, it is by no means a translation of the original. What elevates NotLD REMIX to that more interesting position of translation is the invitation to experience multiple simultaneous contexts. NotLD REMIX immediately puts you in a position removed from the norm. You can see camera operators and actors, at times you can’t even see what they are enacting on stage without needing the camera feed above. The camera operators become as interesting and as important to the work as the original characters. As an audience, you aren’t just watching the story of a group of terrified survivors fending off the undead. You are also watching the characters portrayed by actors move through the story, and actors portraying operators, constantly reinforcing this new medium and added level of artifice. They have a clearly developed choreography among themselves to get across the stage in time, and to not get in each other’s sight lines. It is a series of beautiful actions that would have been hidden in the original film, or further still, wouldn’t have existed on the frantic and functional film set.
The props vary from intricate to minimal and take on specific purposes and meanings along with the projection work. Significant historical moments are interspersed within the performance as projected video. Covering the entire stage, they take over the space and become a new landscape that the performers are navigating. People, as actors, as performers performing actors, as actors performing characters, inside a landscape that is entirely temporal instead of topographical.
The translation, while unintended, that I found most interesting in terms of NotLD REMIX was the move from film (the original) to a hybrid of stage and film (the REMIX) through to film again (the archival version available on Imitating The Dog’s website). Viewing the stage adaptation of the work, there is a framing of uniqueness. No matter how faithful to the original, the piece being portrayed at that moment will always be the only iteration of it that exists. Tomorrow’s performance is a whole new remake of that original work. By the REMIX becoming a digital artifact, that show becomes crystalised. It is no longer about moments of energy between performers being observed as discrete events. Instead it is a series of patterns committed to paper or film. In this new translation, an audience could zoom in on a single gesture and study it over and over, deciding how that one movement catalises the rest of the piece. The original film exists like this, but also not. As a piece of film, it was intended to be an artifact that can be called upon from another time, that can be respooled exactly as it was. The moment-specific, life performance becomes something very different when it is pinned down.
The following is a few snippets from my conversation with co-artistic directors of ITD, Pete Brooks and Simon Wainwright.
The endeavour and the failure of translation
Nick: Could you tell me a little about why the device of the remix interested you? What was the drive behind Night of the Living Dead REMIX?
Pete: Around that time, I started a series of residences, which were based on the idea of failure. And the idea of failure being that, you know, theatre works in its failure to adequately signify what is signified. The example I like to use is that it’s like Warhorse. If you went to see Warhorse, and there was a real horse, there’s no real pleasure in it. It’s the fact that it’s not a real horse. And it fails to be a real horse, but it’s something else that exists in space between what’s being signified. What is the signifier and the signified. So, I was playing around with that… Night of the Living Dead was predicated on the idea that we would be reproducing the film shot for shot with stand-ins – signifiers – and that that would be seen alongside the original. And then we wanted people to be able to compare those things while still being able to watch what’s happening on the floor.
Nick: what was the intent, or what did you want the audience to gain from being able to compare the two at the same time?
Pete: I think that there’s an element of heroism, if you like, I mean, I see it as a mixture of failure and heroism. There’s a kind of metaphor in the way that the failure of the characters in the film to survive, is due to their inability to work together coherently. And what you see on stage is a reproduction of that with people working in great synchrony to actually achieve this reproduction. So partly it’s that as a metaphor and partly, as I said, this idea of failure. And partly it’s about the hero, you know, heroically attempting something, which is kind of impossible.
Simon: The endeavour
Pete: And it kind of doesn’t matter, because it’s the trying that counts.
Unintentional translation, or translation after the fact
Nick: Do you find or do you feel differently about the piece now that it is being interacted with primarily on screen, it is now kind of a film that can never change. Whereas on stage, there will be subtle shifts in performance, regardless of choreography? Is it a different piece for you now? Or does that sit purely in an archival sense?
Simon: For me, it does still sit as purely a record of something that is better seen in the show? I think I’m glad we had it. But I don’t really see it as a work in its own right. Yeah. I don’t know what Pete feels-
Pete: No. I feel exactly the same.
Nick: It makes sense. It was made in that sense and that framing.
Simon: yeah, exactly.
Pete: Another kind of influence. One of the seminal moments in my cultural consumption was seeing Pina Bausch’s 1980, on stage in probably 1983, or something. And one of her principles was really that you had to decide where your focus was. There was too much happening in the stage space to take it all in. And, you know, our work is like that. You have to decide where to look. So once it’s recorded, that decision is being made for you. It’s kind of nice that the online version has been well received. But for me, I haven’t watched it. I’m not actually interested in it.
Simulacra, Simulation, and what even is reality anyway?
Nick: Something that I thought about throughout all three of those pieces [Night of the Living Dead Remix, Storm From Paradise, and Sea Breeze (Imitating the Dog works that we discussed)] as I was looking into them is this idea of recreating or emulating particular aspects of other works or even real things? And having to decide how far or how close you go to that thing in order to get the best sense of reality? How far do you go? Or how much do you overlap with something before it just becomes that thing? Do you use that real thing? And is that more or less interesting in terms of a performance scenario? Like you’re saying, Pete, with the Warhorse analogy, and also with those moments in Night of the Living Dead, where some parts are quite chaotic, and then their emulation is actually more smooth and choreographic, but they’re trying to work towards the same thing. I guess, what do you think of ‘reality’? What’s that about?
Pete: Really perceptive question, because actually, This all started- The disjunction between what you see on stage and what you see on screen started with Zero Hour. Or even before that. It started before that with Kellerman. Kellerman is a story about a pure mathematician who has a sort of breakdown, and while we were researching that project, we were reading a bunch of theoretical physics. And one one quote that stuck with me was that reality is best imagined as if it was a hologram projected from the edges of the universe. So what we became very interested in was that idea of reality – which is not particularly original idea – but the idea that reality is nothing like we perceive it. And we were interested in that as a kind of metaphor for the way in which the past is nothing like you perceive it, you know, history is a narrative formed out of things that happened in the past, but the correlation between two is not necessarily very close. We’re all post Brechtians, so in Zero Hour, we started to set up images on stage which had very little relationship to what you saw on film, but when seen in relation to what was on film, it kind of made sense. It’s like the cinematic reality was more coherent and more-
Simon: More final. Yeah. Set in stone.
Pete: But also more convincing. So we know that stories are more convincing than the truth, so we got involved in all of these kinds of ideas. For me the best moments, as you just said, of Night of the Living Dead are these moments of total chaos, which manage to create something very precise, you know. And you are watching it on staging thinking, How does that turn into that? And I think that’s just a kind of interesting metaphor about all kinds of things. How we perceive the world and what it really is. The distillation of chaos into a kind of comprehensible narrative is at the heart of the problems of our times.
Is it the limitations of reproduction that allow for interesting translation?
Pete: We had a lot of discussion around props. I think a lot of it centres around Barthes’ idea of punctum. You know, the idea that there are a number of scenes centered around a real prop, whether it’s a gun or something, and to be honest, it always upset me a little bit that we never quite worked out a rationalization for what we had on stage, you know, is a little bit arbitrary. We could have made it more accurate by bringing in more stuff. Or we could have got rid of stuff. So we tried to find a rule for that, but it wasn’t straightforward.
Nick: Could you go into that a bit more about why you stopped at a certain point in terms of removing things or adding things? Like one that stuck out stuck out to me while watching is the tire iron.
Pete: Ah yes. The tire iron was made for the show.
Simon: It’s the same with the guns isn’t it. We really wanted the guns to be there.
Nick: Yeah, but I think that I had a different feeling like guns are very practical in that they do something. A tire iron, in terms of some props being representative, is essentially a stick. But for some reason, it’s a stick with a lot of symbolism behind it like it felt more important in its representation.
Simon: well, if you’ve seen the film, you know what it does? You know what a pivotal moment is and without that you haven’t got that action and then you haven’t got that sound. That moment.
Pete: the props are very significant. So for example, let’s take the guns. I was disappointed with the guns.
Nick: Why, is that?
Simon: He’s always disappointed with the guns.
Pete: We didn’t have an M1 Garand, which is really important. The reason that’s important is because it was the influx into American society at the end of the war, where the M1 became the rifle of the American military rifle, which caused the NRA to be set up. The NRA was initially set up as the safety organization and didn’t exist before then. So basically 1946, everybody and his favorite uncle has got an M1 Garand. And that whole mob culture, people with rifles, is really about that. It’s a bit like the way jazz stemmed from the creation of the disbanding of brass bands at the end of the Civil War. So that black musicians suddenly got access to this brass instrumentation. So these props are quite significant. We think about it really hard and sometimes it’s really just a call. So you’re saying, every single shot there is a question? Is it close enough to the original for it to work? There are about four shots, only a very few, that don’t really work for me. Because somehow we didn’t find a good enough solution, right? There’s one at the top of the stairs when the body is dragged along the landing, which I always hated, because it was just kind of not quite good enough.
Nick: Not good enough as in not a faithful enough recreation?
Pete: It needs to inhabit the area between the two if it’s absolutely faithful. If it was to look absolutely the same, it would be just weird.