YOU’VE GOT MAIL — Artists Conduct Touch Research Transatlantically
Over the past few months, artists Kevin Dyer and Pablo Felices-Luna have been in touch. More accurately, they have been exploring ideas around touch through frequent emails and packages in the mail.
Early in 2021, the duo received a grant to conduct this research. This project is part of the New Conversations Program, funded by British Council, Canada Council for the Arts, Farnham Maltings, and the High Commission of Canada in the UK.
While Pablo had followed Kevin’s work for years, the two actually met when MTYP produced Dyer’s Tiny Treasures during its 2019/20 season. “The goal of this project is not necessarily to produce a new play,” says Felices-Luna. “It’s to explore a new process that transcends traditional text-driven dramaturgy. Rather than expecting a new play to develop, this is a chance for us to invent a new creative process.”
“We started with the idea of working from the senses. Kevin said. ‘If we were in the same place, we could share drawings.’ Touch was always going to be hard to do. That’s where the idea of sending packages came from.”
Both artists have felt liberated at not having to have an end goal from this process.
“It’s two people who are on different sides of the world,“ says Dyer, who currently works with three different UK theatre companies, including as an associate writer with a young people’s theatre. “Sometimes we have a conversation. We send something and then we stop for a couple of weeks. It’s like planting a seed or giving someone a little prod. Pablo can suggest something and I can just sit on it for a few weeks. It connects with the other things I’m working on too.”
The most surprising package Dyer received in the mail featured two kinds of slime. “My children never did slime,” laughs Dyer. “I thought: Pablo’s family must be slime experts. One was quite pleasant and the other was a bit like going into a horror film. It was great because it took me to a child’s world.”
Dyer frequently finds inspiration for his plays by working with teens, who he believes have been quite negatively affected by the pandemic. “In our teens we are supposed to be going out and connecting with people in new ways,” he says. “Touch has become such a loaded topic in the current moment. There’s a lot of scientific research about the chemicals that are released in our bodies when we touch. With hugs, apparently, it’s that you get more value out of it if you do it for a longer time.”
Recently, Dyer was working with teens on a Zoom call and gave them a task. “I said. Go and find someone in your house and hug them for 20 seconds.” One female teenager reported, “My dad said to me that I was a weirdo. And please don’t stop. Another mother said, “It made me realize that we hadn’t hugged each other for a really long time. Even though they had been living in the same house for twelve months and hadn’t been out.”
Pablo and Kevin share the belief that you can’t create work for young people without input from young people. “I do my best to observe and connect with children and young people,” says Pablo. “You need to make sure the work is reflective of who they are and what their real stories are.”
Adds Dyer, “I’m a dad with two sons. Over the years, I’ve always made work for them. I’ve imagined when I’m in the rehearsal room that they’re sitting on either side of me. I try and watch the play through their eyes.”
As a writer who creates work for both children and adult audiences, Dyer has observed a difference between the two groups. “As adults we have to understand something before we can engage with it. I think children can engage with things before understanding them.”
This project concluded at the end of June, but Dyer says he couldn’t help himself and wrote down a few stories. “In my head, I’m a writer and I write for theatre. I would love if something came out of this, but that’s never been the goal.”
“The touch project has been about learning non-cerebrally. I think we do learn through our emotions. This project is about pleasure, about safety, about consent. That’s not a subject just for children. Safety and consent is right at the top of our social agenda right now.”
Despite the atypical scope of working with no expected outcome, both artists agree working on the project has been time well spent.
“This will inform my future work the next time I write or direct something,” says Dyer. ”I will be aware of how we tell stories using that particular sense. I’ll be far more aware of how people use touch to connect with the world around them. That’s quite a good result I think.”