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When Doubt Creeps In: Ira Brand discusses Commitment-Phobe

Image credit: Photo of Ira Brand by Eva Roef.

Ira Brand's latest show takes on some bold topics. Commitment Phobe is an exploration of doubt in a society that values certainty. It is a response to a perceived social and cultural demand for the clear, the sure, and the consistent – ways that we are taught it is worthwhile and understandable for a person to be. Ira wrote for Run-Riot to discuss what happens when doubt creeps in and things aren't so black and white... 

I started thinking about Commitment Phobe after I finished making a previous show, Ways To Submit. In Ways To Submit, I invite members of the audience to have a physical fight with me, and so the show is different every night. I was working consciously with a kind of ambiguity, and while many people liked that work, I also frequently experienced people who were frustrated by it because of this ambiguity. They wanted me to make clearer statements about what it was that was happening with the audience and what I thought about it and what it all meant. I became fascinated by this desire for clarity, for a definitive knowing. I have that desire too, of course. But I realised that I was always somehow in a state of un-knowing, a state of doubt.

A friend of mine once told me that I make performance to practice ways of being in the world that do not otherwise feel available to me, and that has felt true since I heard it. I often begin making from a personal tension, usually something that is in relation to how we live in and are shaped by wider social and political norms. In this case, I wanted to make a show about being a ‘person of doubt’ in a world that values certainty. 

There’s a strange paradox to trying to make a show about doubt. When you have an internal voice that questions your every thought, and you invite this voice into your process – not just because it’s always there inside you, but explicitly as part of the content of the work – it’s frankly very hard to get anything done. Everything that something could be, could just as well be something else.

I wanted to make a show that celebrated doubt. That took this thing that for me had always been a struggle, and made it something joyous. I wanted to resist having to be unambiguous and confident, to resist having to make clear, bold statements. I wanted the show to be a kind of gentle "fuck you" to the dominant social and cultural narratives that tell us that certain and decisive are the ways it is valuable for a person to be. (A ‘gentle’ "fuck you" because, well, resisting boldness…)

The title, Commitment Phobe, is a bit of a joke – am I celebrating doubt, or am I just afraid to commit? Am I resisting definitive knowing, or do I just not know anything? (Hello, self-doubt!) And when I started making, I found that I did not actually feel very celebratory. And anyway, isn’t celebration also kind of ‘bold’? You can see how the contradictions kept coming.

To make an artwork you have to make decisions and, as Anne Bogart would tell us, a decision destroys all the other possibilities of what could have been. Framed like this, it’s kind of heartbreaking. What would it be to make show without any decisions? What would it be to make a show that stayed forever in doubt? That did not arrive at knowing? Would it be bearable? Could I tolerate it, as an artist? Could we tolerate it, as the viewers?

Well, I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you, because I couldn’t do it. Decisions have been made. Other possibilities have been destroyed. There is a show that is what it is, and everything else it could have been has gone to the great theatre in the sky. Except of course, there will still be an audience. And a space that cracks open when their unknowability meets the decisions I have made.

Maybe it’s a cheat. What I have learnt from this process, though, is that at every step I have to dig past the binary ways of thinking that are so deeply ingrained in me, and in our culture. Even when I talk, or write, about the ideas in this work I notice that I get stuck in a game of oppositions. There is me and there is the world. There is how you are and there is how I am. I have had to learn to get past the idea of something being either ‘precise’ or ‘ambiguous’, either ‘certain’ or ‘unsure’, either ‘gentle’ or ‘bold’. For me it is always both. 

Come see my show. It’s both a celebration and not a celebration.

Oh, and there’s a chain reaction machine in it. 

Next time I’m making a show about fish.

Commitment Phobe by Ira Brand is at The Yard 2-6 May at 9pm as part of NOW Festival 2023. To find out more, head here. 

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