The Past is a Different Country
Part of the Invisible Diaries series:
Week 3 / Day 5
Yesterday was a tricky day. I have coped well with lockdown so far – I often work from home anyway, we have a garden with songbirds and frogs, and I am able to structure the week with my academic job, voluntary work and dramaturgy for Slung Low. I can save my anger for the bigger picture (see previous blogs), because there’s no anger or cabin fever going on. There are students to look after, there’s work to do in accompanying Slung Low’s adaptation to current times and needs, there’s a mother with complex health problems and spiralling anxiety to look after over the phone, there is voluntary work, there is concern for people who are struggling. It’s not about me. But yesterday, it suddenly was.
Elbow (I love Elbow, don’t @ me!) have been doing a weekly request session, and yesterday’s was 'Mirrorball', which contains one of my favourite string sections over the words ‘everything has changed’. Enjoying the moment of being transported back to when there were concerts, my glance wanders across my desk and rests on a childhood studio portrait of my dad.
My Dad, Gordon McKechnie (1943-2018), ca. 1948.
Dad poses and smiles accommodatingly, hair slick with Brylcreem. There was a lot of ‘everything has changed’ in his younger life: from theatre to opera, from stage managing to directing, from England to Germany.
Yesterday evening, I saw him again while watching Satyagraha, a recording of Philip Glass’s opera from the early 1980s, directed and designed by Achim Freyer for Stuttgart Opera. Dad appears briefly as one of seven allegorical figures, wearing a red costume and a pig mask, but his main job is Associate Director for the production. I am 14 and an invisible extra, lost in a large crowd, manipulating things behind walls. Watching the production 37 years later, in parallel, I see in my mind’s eye what is going on in the wings, backstage where trucks with chorus members strapped to them are waiting for their cue, where technicians are quietly swearing because ‘the sea’ is stuck, where a stage manager shushes chatting choristers, where Dad runs past in the distance on his way to the lighting box, where a group of performers are standing by to take positions in 8 bars of total blackout.
The last scene contains some of the most transcendental music I know, with Gandhi singing on his own for about 15 minutes, to soft string and woodwind arpeggios. He walks backwards up a narrow staircase, while brightly painted gauze surrounds him. Mesmerised, I watch from the wings, stage right, while performers, all painted blue, are assembling around me ready for the curtain call. A tired chorister mumbles ‘Get on with it and reach Nirvana; we want to go home!’ in the general direction of Gandhi on stage.
I think of my 14-year-old self: gawky, although used to being on stage from an early age, still feeling like a beginner every time my parents make a fresh start at a new theatre or opera house; absorbing the skill and creativity of everyone around me in a matter-of-fact way, only realising much later how formative this time will become, and how high the quality of the work is around me (Stuttgart Opera was an absolute powerhouse in the 1980s). Whilst my obsession with the performance of ‘backstage’ had started at an even earlier age, this is the beginning of my lifelong obsession with the music of Philip Glass and the work of Achim Freyer.
The next decades will contain a lot of ‘everything has changed’ for me. I am adaptable, always have been – I read the room, I can see the world (and the work!) through someone else’s eyes, I apply context, I have easy access to creative ideas, but I know when it’s not about me. I am the very model of a transnational dramaturg – a lifelong shifter between languages, countries, between academia, opera and theatre, between being an insider and an outsider.
I return to my 51-year-old self, in a different country, pondering all the things my teenage self knew nothing about, still mourning the loss of my father and still adapting to being the carer of a mother who has complex needs, but who lives 1000kms away.
The past is a different country, and it took place in a different country.
Dr Kara McKechnie is a German-Scottish hybrid. Born in London and educated in Germany, she worked for Opera Stuttgart, Opera Karlsruhe, Heidelberg Theatre et al. Her academic career started at Heidelberg University and continued at De Montfort University (PhD thesis on Alan Bennett; monograph 2007).
She has worked as a Lecturer in Dramaturgy at Bretton Hall, then University of Leeds, since 2000 and teaches and supervises for the School of Performance & Cultural Industries and the School of Music. She has worked with Opera North and Leeds Playhouse on many projects, has published a monograph on Opera North (2014) and regularly collaborates with opera director Alessandro Talevi in the UK and Italy.
Kara is resident dramaturg for Slung Low (Leeds), funded by the Gulbenkian Foundation. Slung Low have ‘repurposed’ as a hub for food bank referrals. Their short film, The Good Book, is released online on 1 May.