05 December 2018
Antosh Wojcik is a poet, writer, facilitator, and musician, leading workshops in schools and for all ages, and has performed at festivals such as Glastonbury, Latitude and Bestival. How to Keep Time: A Drum Solo for Dementia, is Antosh's latest mesmeric, experimental show, combining spoken word and electronic drumming as he attempts to connect with his Polish grandfather, or Dziadek, as he suffers from vascular dementia. The show was first performed in 2016, and was later performed from 1-26 August this year at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. We were lucky enough to see it in our own NST City as part of this years SO: To Speak Festival. I was able to speak to Antosh before the show about the play, how he finds performing at festivals, and what writing means to him.
I begin by asking him to tell me what the show’s about - he’s lost for a moment, laughing, “It’s about many things!”
Narratively, How To Keep Time “is about my grandfather’s struggle with vascular dementia, and it’s effectively about me trying to communicate with him and continuously failing, and not giving up, and in that desperation finding out how people lose someone who’s affected by dementia,” he tells me. “It’s a piece that becomes about accepting who someone is when they go through dementia and being there for them,” instead of constantly trying to return them to who they were before; “that’s almost the kind of the goal of it, I guess”.
“Largely, it’s about how memory is constructed, and how it slips, and how it becomes interrupted in a stage of dementia, and a lot of it is attempting to illustrate memory, and the varying degrees of memory, and what different sorts of memories we have, and how those can be kind of changed when someone is affected by dementia. And also, as someone who is outside of dementia and is not actually affected by the condition, it’s kind of about trying to be honest with it and find solutions, even if the solutions aren’t a healing thing, they’re more of a kind of acceptance.”
“To be honest, most of this piece is forged out this frustration of not being able to speak Polish, because I can’t speak it at all,” he adds. Antosh’s grandfather was bilingual, able to speak both Polish and English, while Antosh was limited to English only.
“Because his brain was struggling so much to connect with the outside world, and this is just my reading of it,” he notes, “I’m not saying I’m right, it became apparent that he was more in his Polish than he was in his English. He would speak in words that weren’t really words, they’d be slightly erased version of Polish, and sometimes English. I’d be able to talk to him for maybe three hours and I’d get maybe three clear English words from that. And so the inability to speak Polish for me, and the character of me in the piece, is what drives the need for the drums to get through, because the language has almost failed - or, maybe not failed, but it’s not enough for Antosh in the play, so he has to resort to the drumming.”
The drums are also almost bilingual, representing both Antosh’s and his grandfather’s attempts to communicate. “There are illustrations of Dziadek and how Dziadek talks, and a lot of that was effectively verbatim use of some of the sounds he made in these deeper stages,” he explains. “I think a lot of it does explore what it lost when, as a second-generation Polish person in my case, a relative of yours is going through this condition and you can’t access their first language in order to talk to them in that and console them in that. It’s almost the biggest sadness in the delivery of the play. It’s not only that I’m losing the person, but that I’m unable to even console them in the way that would be best.”
This idea of being unable to reach dziadek in his home tongue “tinges all of the other memory work in the piece” with the fear that “this memory might not even really be real, because it’s not as authentic as it would be, told in his language.”
“My dad is the reason I don’t speak Polish, really, because he never spoke it to us, and I think a part of me probably slightly resents him for it. My dad is also in the piece, so there’s a whole navigation of that underneath as well,” he adds, apologising for the long answer - “Whenever I start unpacking it, there’s like projects and projects worth of stuff.”
The way that Antosh expresses this multiplicity of meaning is through an electronic drum kit. “The initial actual use of the drum kit came from how my dziadek, my grandfather, became, because his vascular dementia was very physical. I don’t think he really forgot anything, he just got pushed behind a wall and locked in. He could no longer connect to his muscles, basically, and his speech became this very complicated and glitchy thing, and I felt like the best way to illustrate that was through my drumming. It’s a language that I know quite deeply, and I felt that it was the most immediate way of showing how the dementia had gripped him physically. It was a very physical thing, so it meant that there needed to be a really physical way of showing it.”
Music is also used to help care for and support those suffering with dementia, accessing memories that were otherwise thought to be lost. “If you play someone who has dementia a particular song they know from their childhood, they probably will still be able to sing it,” Antosh explains. Out of this link, he “started to develop my understanding of how that music memory works.”
Although the piece is comprised of spoken word and drumming, Antosh sees it as a play, and himself as an actor. “It’s only something that I’ve learnt through taking the piece to the Fringe,” he admits. Before Saturday, Antosh had last performed How To Keep Time at the Fringe, at 10:15 every morning. “Theatre audiences seem to be so different to when you’re reading poetry at a festival, there’s a very significant change in approaching a theatre space. People come to the theatre knowing the thing they are going to see is performance. I try not to be complacent at all, but there’s no room for it, you have to absolutely smash this.” With open air festivals, meanwhile, “you can’t even really play the room, the festival space plays you. I remember the first time I did a significant performance to quite a few people was Glastonbury,” in 2015, with Poetry&Words. “People just walk in and out midway through, they’re probably smashed, they just don’t care. So again, it’s like a call to hold on to the writing and know that whatever you’ve written is enough, and maybe let them leave with something. The people who are in the space and still listening to you, you have to still be very much there for them. With open air spaces you have to be quite programmed for the trascience of it, and I don't think you should bend what you’re going to read to that. I would prepare quite a quiet set, perhaps, and then I’d go to the space and it’s quite transient - if you let the buckle to that space then you’re not able to read what you want to read, and that’s going to slightly diminish the responses of the people who stay. When you’re coming to those more open spaces, you don’t have to be louder, you just have to be aware of how the space is going to be moving and just be open to it.”
“I’ve actually always been quite dismissive of actors, and I’ve actually gained a whole respect for that craft and approach, which I hate about myself,” he says, laughing. “I’ve found that the beginning of the piece is very much about me, and is still very much me, but I’ve needed to see it as performing or playing as someone, so that the writing does the work that it needs to do, that I’m not breaking myself in half on stage performing something that’s intensely autobiographical that I’m very close to.” At the Edinburgh Fringe, he had to perform the piece “every day for a month, and I would go through the emotions in the work, people would respond extremely positively and heartfelt, but I’d be able to go and watch loads of things, and I’d be able to laugh for the whole day, and I didn’t lose one show because of being emotionally wrecked by it. Approaching it with the intention of an actor, because I definitely now would not claim that I have the skill of an actor yet, I’m still learning that, but it’s with that intention that I’m living to what the writing’s done, because the writing is what’s got all the emotion.”
He also says that this approach has “actually started guiding how I approach my written work. Whenever I’m on stage and performing, I’m no longer seeking to reach that initial, unbridled, raging emotion that forged the piece, I’m trusting the writing more. I’m emoting, and things like that, but I’m not trying to hurt myself in the process. I do particularly sad stuff, I write very autobiographically all the time, and I’d find myself losing whole days afterwards. I’ve also started questioning whether or not that’s a good thing to do to an audience, if my contract to them coming into the space is thinking ‘This poem’s gonna mess me up, and it’s gonna mess you up too,’ that’s not a reciprocal action, I don’t think it’s very responsible, and I don’t think it’s really what I want my writing to do. I want my writing to make people feel things, and I want to feel things whilst I read them, but I don’t want it to be, ‘We’re here to hurt together.’ I think art has more power than that. It can supply the hurt and the feeling, but it can also possibly give you the answer.”
From learning this lesson, Antosh has also come to clarify where he stands on art’s relationship with therapy. “I think we should have places for therapy and art, but I don’t want art, my art particularly, I don’t want my art to be therapeutic, because again I think that skews too much what an audience can get from it,” he explains. “There is a catharsis, a release, a value of therapy in the writing process, because you are, in effect, working with your emotions. With this piece, I’ve had to reflect very much on particular memories, and scenes from my life, in order to work out what they stand for, and in that there is a therapeutic value, because I learn what I think and I learn what I might be sad about. But once it’s then put in a narrative framework and it’s delivered, with drumming and things like that, to me it then moves into a stage of where it is art, and that’s purely what I want it to be.”
“I think people can get therapeutic values from it, and I’d never close that off for someone,” he clarifies. Instead, by not limiting the piece to those therapeutic qualities “there’s room for the audience - I think that’s what it is, people can get their many different readings from it. I think audiences want to be able to possibly see their own stories in things, and maybe you get audience members who have no experience of this, but they will perhaps learn a thing or two, or enjoy getting lost in memories.
“I had a few drummers come and watch the piece and that was really interesting,” Antosh recalls. “They were really cool to talk to because they focused a lot on the application of the drums. I think if I was solely looking at trying to make a therapeutic piece of art, they might not have that response, maybe.”
“It’s a question that I like to answer and I think a lot about, because I very much believe that we should have art for therapy, that we should come into a space where we do that, but I do believe that it has a sort of separate space, so that we all come into the space with the same intent.”
If you missed this performance, try to catch it when you can - it’s not one to miss.
Interview by Sophie Jones.
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