Having parted ways with his 45 on-stage comrades, we caught up with The Record‘s Jake Cooper to reminisce about his experience being a part of this boundary-pushing show.
I will do my best to avoid clichés here, but it does become difficult when the experience is so indescribably extraordinary! The process for me began in September 2016 when a friend shared an advert on Facebook: a call out for Bristolians to take part in the show as part of IBT Bristol International Festival 2017. I’m lucky enough to work at Bristol Old Vic in a number of Front of House capacities, so I had heard about the show already, and the premise of such a large cast of strangers was an intriguing hook.
The auditions, and subsequent rehearsals, took place at the Trinity Centre, a lovely converted church in Lawrence Hill. We were invited in groups of 10-15 to work with 600 HIGHWAYMEN (or Abi and Michael, as they were known to us) for an hour, during which we ran through some basic movement exercises, then worked on simplified snippets of the show itself. This briefest of tasters gave us a hint of how uplifting and special the project would be; coming together and performing with strangers, even just in a simple three minute piece, was incredibly powerful.
After getting the call that I was in (yay!), I was given a page of cues and movements to memorise before rehearsals began in mid-January. For three weeks we worked in individual slots of about 45 minutes with Michael or Abi, never meeting or knowing who our fellow cast members were. This was a fascinating concept, and required a huge amount of trust in our directors. Thankfully, they were both incredibly easy to trust; not once during the process did their faith in us all doing the right thing waver, and having such an extensive focus on how I performed as an individual was so valuable.
Rehearsals flew by in this way, and before I knew it, it was show week. Our tech runs had also taken place individually, so we first met our cast mates on opening night itself, side stage in the holding area. Just as we began to introduce ourselves and try to ascertain who was doing what, we were brought back to focus by Michael and Abi, and were asked to simply concentrate on performing our parts as we had individually rehearsed them. As we had done so proficiently thus far in the process, we trusted them to follow their instructions.
So it was then that the lights went down, and one by one we stepped out on the stage with a strange kind of blind faith in each other. And what an experience! For me, opening night passed by with a sort of joyful surrealism. In a theatrical space that through my work I have an almost unparalleled familiarity with, I was doing something completely alien – performing a series of abstract movements with complete strangers, looking out onto an audience and wondering what on earth they would think. This was not acting or performing as we know it, this was simply seeing and being seen. So many elements came together: as well as seeing how my moves fitted in to the whole, I heard Brandon Wolcott and Emil Abramyan’s beautiful music for the very first time, and felt first-hand how the presence and engagement of an audience completed the art that we were making.
For me, the reception of the audiences was what gave The Record context and meaning, and kept the piece alive beyond that opening night. As the performances passed, my castmates became less like strangers and more like friends. The movements became more natural, and the sensation of stepping out on to stage became less nerve-wracking. But each and every show, as Abi would always remind us, a brand new group of people sat in the theatre and responded to us completely differently. On stage, every time I moved my gaze to a new audience member, the feeling was unique. The tiniest acknowledgement, the subtlest alteration of expression was enhanced a hundredfold. And post-show, through talking with a huge range of people, the experience of the show continued to ferment and develop. Some people had taken upwards of a minute to realise the show had ended; some had left halfway through; some had been moved to tears; all, as far as I could tell, had experienced an emotional response that warranted discussion.
Whether you loved The Record, hated it, or were somewhere in between, it seems that our audience have all been moved to delve into its deeper meaning. The sheer range of topics to discuss post-show blew me away: the nature of humanity; the function of theatrical space; how to condition the response of an audience; death; time; how to form friendships. In choreographing something quite simple and minimalist, Abi and Michael have created an incredibly varied and poignant forum that continues to travel all over the world. Their vision and intellect is inspiring, and the discussion they elicit is always worth having. As a performer, I never watched the show in its entirety, so it’s difficult for me to comment on what I think the meaning of it all is. All I can say with conviction is that coming together with people that I would simply never have known otherwise to create art was immeasurably powerful. I have come away with a deeper awareness of the smallest interactions that we as humans share on a day-to-day basis, and that, no matter how pretentious it may sound, is valuable in a way that is incredibly difficult to articulate.