TSKC's Bethan Screen interviews Robin Paley Yorke!
Can you tell us a bit about what you do?
I ‘brand’ myself a performer, practitioner, and theatre maker. I am a performer. I act and sing and move, I wouldn’t say dance, and I run workshops in different fields. I’m just about setting up a men's vocal group called Men's Vocal Sessions which is a group exploring masculinity, the rules of masculinity, vulnerability, and general stresses for men through singing and voice.
Why do you think exploring those themes of masculinity and the rules of masculinity and gender can be done through singing?
I’ve done quite a lot of training in physical theatre, but my kind of practice falls very much in the voice. Finding the vulnerabilities in the voice. Every now now and again someones voice might crack and it's interesting how people react to that. People kind of put on a face, but sometimes voice will not let that face stand up.
What other artists or people influence you as a person or your work?
Aesthetically, I trained with a Polish theatre company ‘Song of the Goat’ and this lineage of the physical work, acrobatic, physical, demanding, pushing the performer to their limit, is something I love to watch and incorporate into my work. But, then music-wise my work is influenced by different folk music.
When did you decide you wanted to work in theatre and performance and with your voice? Was it a "lightbulb moment" or is it an ongoing realisation?
I think it's a slow ongoing realisation. I remember from a young age I was in the school choir, as you do, and then when I was eight years old there was an open-air production about the history of my town. That was the first moment I realised, I’m not doing this just for a school thing, but I’m part of a bigger thing. It was the first time I was not just telling my story, but my heritage. Looking back it was horrendously amateur. It made me realise I wanted to get really good at it. I wanted to do this as a job, but I thought I’m nowhere near good enough.
The theme for the issue if metamorphosis, what does that mean to you?
That's a nice question! My initial thoughts... reminds me of a cocoon, a caterpillar and bursting out. It's an ugly image, this birthing of a butterfly but there is the beauty of it flying away. Or maybe it’s a moth, it doesn’t have to be pretty.
I like that, the idea of the metamorphosis itself being ugly and leading to something beautiful
Oh god yeh! Its fucking ugly. It's awful its painful, it hurts, it's ugly for you, for everyone else around you. You can’t see the good it's going to be for you until you’re flying and soaring. But even when you start flying you’re going to fall back down to the ground before you fly again. It takes time.
That’s beautiful, the pain of the metamorphosis and of transformation. What would you say have been times of metamorphosis in your life?
I say I’ve definitely got two prominent moments that really stand out. The first is coming out. not so much to family or friends but to myself. I’d say that was a bigger metamorphosis internally than externally. My parents where like ‘Oh yeh, we know!’. I feel like it is a big thing but on reflection it's so not a big thing.
What makes you say that?
At the moment were going through a pleasant age in think in this country (the UK) in particular, sadly not everywhere. Being gay is such a non-thing it’s just part of society, it's not hidden in the depths. For me at the time when I came out, or the time I stopped being in denial, it was really big time for a lot of high profile people. I was nineteen when I had my first homosexual experience, it sounds really ugly like that. Then I came out to friends at twenty and to family at twenty-one.
Three years of cocoon time!
Looking back, I don’t know how I didn’t know. When I was younger I clearly knew, but I didn’t allow myself to acknowledge it. I think because of where I come from (the north east of England) the ideology that exists of cis-white heterosexuality in society is still quite strong. I remember I had an argument with a friend of mine and they were already out and very supportive. I was breaking down. I was shouting ‘I can’t have a wife and kids’. He said ‘well, you can’t have a wife but whats to say you can't have kids’. Now I don’t want that, but at the time I felt I had to fill that stereotype that was ingrained in me.
After that argument was when I came out to myself. That was when I was nineteen. It was about nine months of me fighting with myself.
So what was the second time of metamorphosis?
The second was losing my sight in my left eye. I am sight impaired in my left eye. I can see blurry shapes, colours outlines of objects and bubbles. I lost my sight in an accident. I was seventeen years old. It was after a charity event, a school battle of the bands. In the north east it's pretty easy to get alcohol and everyone was drinking. I myself was very inebriated which was probably a good thing as later I didn’t feel much pain. The event had finished and I was waiting for a bus outside the venue. According to the police report (I remember all the details very well because I’ve regurgitated them so much) at 11.39 PM a guitar smashed through a window. When you hear glass smash you instinctively look for it. I heard it. I looked behind. The glass smashed and a tiny, tiny shard slashed my iris, my cornea, dislodges my lens and later on I had a retinal detachment.
(He explains a diagram of the eye, labelling all its parts.)
I was really drunk. A friend of mine rang the ambulance, because I was conscious the person on the phone asked to speak to me. My friend was saying, his eye is kind of hanging out and a bit split. The jelly was pouring out. I was on the phone with the person from the emergency services. They asked me my name and what was wrong. They asked ‘is there something in your eye?’ I responded it must be a piece of grit or something.
They said ‘Okay, well it sounds like you’re not in too much pain, if you experience more pain or discomfort go to your GP tomorrow’. By the time that happened, my dad had arrived and took me to the hospital.
It was about 4.00 am on the 4th of February that I began to sober up. I began to feel real pain. They said there was a high chance I could lose the eyeball. That was like the most sobering moment ever. Just like waking up. At 9 o’clock I had my first operation. That was very difficult surgery for the doctors, 24 stitches on the cornea, on the eye itself.
I had three operations by September 2010. I was seventeen when this happened.
You said before that losing your sight in your left eye was a kind of metamorphosis. Do you see it as that? As a metamorphosis or as something that was purely destructive?
I think it was very much so a metamorphosis. At the time it was very difficult, I didn’t understand what was happening. At that age you just want to focus, crack on, and do your exams. Start beginning to sort your life out.
It's a time of a lot of change, seventeen. You might be thinking about moving out, applying for universities, getting a job; it's a time of coming out of childhood. That's another metamorphosis in itself, I guess.
Completely, this was like a massive change. There is something that I didn’t realise it would affect so much until considerably later, which is, how it affects my mental health. There are quite a lot of mental health issues in my family. I was reading a study that if you experience trauma at this certain age (eleven to seventeen) you’re more likely to experience mental health problems. I thought, that was it, I definitely will then. Looking back that's the most stupid thing ever.
Trauma will always affect your mental health anyway at whatever age.
Exactly, and there are so many things that affect your mental health; it's not one thing. I also felt quite anxious whenever I saw the person, who caused the accident. Looking back I think you know what, this person wasn’t in a good place, they had their own shit going on. What they did wasn’t right. It shouldn’t have happened and the consequences are difficult to imagine. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but initially I was really angry.
Was it someone you knew quite well?
They were at my secondary school. I knew them, not really well, but we had worked together in class. That was strange, like this has happened and I still have to be around you. That was tough, but for them also.
Would you want to speak to them now, if you had the opportunity?
Now I’m not too bothered, so much time has passed and I think I’ve got over it. I wish I had been able to speak to them at the time. But, now it wouldn’t change anything.
When people experience trauma or when they lose a limb or part of themselves, they will grieve. Sometimes it doesn’t happen immediately, for me it really didn’t. It happened whilst I was doing my master's degree when I was twenty-two to twenty-three. This grief was painful.
What triggered this grieving process to begin or to begin again?
It was during my performance training. It was during an exercise and it was a real "lightbulb moment." A performer and myself were doing an exercise exploring coordination. Basically we were exploring how a physical impulse can make you react and move and how this impulse can make you react emotionally. There was a moment when she brought her hand in front of my forehead and my eyes. I burst into tears and fell to the floor. I was really quite scared. I felt their presence on my left hand side. I was in a massive shock. I thought, oh shit I really have lost something. In this process of exploring how your body reacts we found a lot of different sensations. It really helped me to find how I worked in performance and create the sense of periphery which I don’t have anymore. I need to trust my feet my gut and trust my depth perception which changes according to the light in a room.
Do you feel like you're compensating for that in your body?
It's difficult to say that anyone has a heightened awareness of a sense. It falls into the myth, the legend that blind people can smell and hear better. But, because I was doing this specific training creating this heightened awareness corporeally. But, it’s because of the training not because I am sight impaired.
How did you find out that that was a myth? I believed that until this day, educate me!
I think speaking to other sight impaired people, reading about it. Yes you can train yourself to echolocate if you are blind and click and locate yourself around a room but that takes a lot of training and work, it's not automatic.
Although I was interested in music at a young age, following the accident I developed my passion for music more and I really am intrigued by music and the voice and how we express ourselves with it. I don’t know if there is a correlation or causation with my loss of sight or if it's a mix of things. Would those things have come together anyway? I don’t know, maybe.
Maybe it's too simplistic to say because you lost your sight you became interested in things that where more aural or musical. Do you think working with theatre companies that work with sight impaired people or with other disabilities, which is a big part of your practice now, is something that you have sought out? Or, something that has happened naturally?
I’d say it's something I have actively looked for. Following the period of grief during my master's, my thesis was about how to make this kind of training more accessible not just to people who are sight impaired, but also those who are not. I didn’t get very far. That is a career length of work.
It's ongoing. I was in touch with Graeae, one of the world's leading sight impaired theatre companies based in London, it was really helpful learning about integrated performing arts, which I didn’t know about before.
Can you describe what ‘integrated performing arts’ is in layman's terms?
Integrated performance is when we have performers who are disabled working alongside performers who are not, like in any other workplace. In theatre this is not as common as it should be. The same in any performance field. The percentage of disabled performers is not representative of the general population.
This has been a question of mine, too. As an actor during my training I struggled to imagine how it could be applied to anyone who is not in their twenties, healthy, completely able-bodied, and physically capable. It doesn’t seem very adaptable or open to people with different abilities and needs.
It’s a huge issue in the industry, inaccessibility. It's an outrage. It's true of many work places. When those access needs are not met, it can really put people off. There is amazing work done by companies like Extraordinary Bodies an intergrated circus company, Graeae, Extant who are a company made up of sight impaired performers, Taking Flight is another integrated theatre company and Kanduko dance. It is so necessary.
Can we truly ever always have great work that is accessible to everyone? I have unofficially come to the conclusion that you can’t. You might have elements for a deaf person or a sight impaired person but never totally. And that's fucking fine!
Are there any other places we can find you and your work?
Twitter @robinpaleyyorke or online.
Also, I'm an associate artist at Invisible Flash and a producer and performer with Seemia theatre—an international ensemble made up of two Iranians, an Argentinian, and three British people. We create performances about unheard stories. Our current project is Evros, the crossing river, look out for more details about that soon on all social media outlets (@seemiatheatre). Not to mention, I wrote an article for The Stage.