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> > > Tim Gebbels on starring in Extant’s The Chairs

Kate Lovell talks to actor Tim Gebbels about his role as Old Man in Extant’s re-boot of Eugene Ionesco’s classic Theatre of the Absurd play, The Chairs, which is touring 3 – 26 April 2016.

A photograph of actors Heather Gilmore as Old Woman (left) and Tim Gebbels as Old Man right in Extant's The Chairs. They are holding hands and seem deep in conversation. A dystopian set is behind them.

Tim Gebbels as Old Man in The Chairs. Photograph: Lily Owen.

Gebbels is an actor drawn to classic texts, but as a disabled actor, he often struggles to find opportunities to act in plays from the canon. Not enough directors are casting disabled actors, and when they do, more often than not the role has been written in as disabled, which for plays written pre-20th Century, is reasonably rare.

Never having performed in an Ionesco play before, Gebbels was, at first, daunted by the “prodigious amount of lines” and the notorious difficulty of playing Theatre of the Absurd. But catching up with him a few days before opening, he talks with great insight and enthusiasm about his experience, explaining the importance and relevance of The Chairs today. Gebbels believes that Theatre of the Absurd will “still be being done and known about in hundreds of years’ time.”

Extant are Britain’s only visually-impaired-led professional theatre company, and in the past have pioneered almost exclusively new writing and highly experimental work. The Chairs is a departure for the company, visiting a classic work from post-war Europe.

Gebbels explains:

“With Theatre of the Absurd you can play. Because there are a lot of invisible characters in the play, the director thought it would be interesting to have visually impaired actors working with invisible characters. In a sense the audience can’t see them, so why should the cast see them? Putting it the other way around, if the characters onstage can’t see them, well maybe they can’t see them because they’re blind.”

The show has a cast of two, Old Man and Old Woman, with the rest of the cast (except one later addition, the Orator) consisting of invisible characters, which Gebbels finds a meaty challenge as an actor:

“Working with invisible characters onstage is curious if you can’t see because eye lines are interesting to do at the best of times. I suppose if there were other actors onstage, then I would be masking my impairment, and that generally is a bit dodgy round actors with impairments on stage. But because all the other characters in the play are invisible, therefore not real, the fact that in a superficial sense I’m masking my impairment is all right because we’re already in an alternative, not very naturalistic universe.”

In fact, it’s imperative that Gebbels does indicate visually where these characters are:

“If you’re blind you do that with real people anyway, you do try and face them, you naturally try and do eye lines, just because it’s polite, or because it’s body language. But I suppose with invisible characters onstage it’s important to do that, blind or not, as an actor because they’re not there, there aren’t real actors, so you’ve really got to show the audience where they are.”

Both actors onstage are able to keep an impressive catalogue of invisible characters held in their heads, looking up at taller characters, down at shorter ones, keeping track of which character is standing where. It is no mean feat, and their mastery is a joy to watch.

Accessibility is an embedded part of the aesthetic of this production, and Gebbels explains how the set is designed:  

“There are lots of markings on the floor which hopefully don’t intrude for anyone who can see, but they’re very much for me to orientate myself, so I know where I am most of the time. Old Man is a janitor, so I carry a mop and bucket. Part of the reason for carrying a mop is so I can use that to orientate sometimes a bit sneakily, like a long cane. I don’t use it exactly like that, but I do sometimes push it ahead of me.”

The audio description is also integrated, played by speakers onstage to the whole audience. “At the risk of being a bit didactic, I think for sighted audience members coming, why shouldn’t they have the integrated audio description? They’ll go away at least knowing what audio description is: it’ll be interesting and perhaps a new theatrical experience for them.”

A photograph of actors Heather Gilmore as Old Woman (left) and Tim Gebbels as Old Man right in Extant's The Chairs. Tim is holding a mop and looking up, Heather is weightlifting with a small rusty object.

Gebbels alongside Heather Gilmore as Old Woman. Photograph: Lily Owen.

As well as keeping track of a litany of invisible people, both characters are older, and Ionesco indicates in his text that Old Man and Old Woman are in their mid-nineties, which poses new challenges for Gebbels, an actor much younger than the stated character age.

“Ionesco is also playing with time a bit, so there’s lots of points in the play where the characters mention time. They might say ‘We’ve done this for 80 years’ or ‘We’ve been together for a century,’ and the times given can’t be literal. The characters in the text are said to be 94 and 95, but I don’t think they’re necessarily exactly those ages.

I think he was just putting those ages to say here’s two people who are impossibly old; mid-90s would have felt more unlikely 70 years ago. I think if he’d written it now, he might have said they’re 110 or something. So we’re being a bit interpretive with all the timings and their age, but they are old.”

The age of the character is what informs how to play Old Man for Gebbels. As a piece of Theatre of the Absurd, there is not a naturalistic sense of a character to work with, so it must be approached differently.

“I think, in many ways, Ionesco has written the Old Man as a composite of lots of different aspects of man. At one point he is the child within each adult. At another, he is representing the mental failures or memory failures that can happen to old people. He’s petulant, he’s someone who at times has chip on his shoulder, he feels that he’s been hard done by in life. I’m sure there are other actors and directors with other views about him, but that’s what I think at the moment.”

The questions that Theatre of the Absurd poses to audiences are fundamental questions about humanity, that will continue to be relevant no matter what the era.

“I think it’s timeless and I think the questions that are being asked by plays like this 70 years ago haven’t dated at all: why are we here, what is the point, what is the function of God? Ionesco, I think in the note to the director of the first production, said it’s a play about absence. It’s a play about a load of empty chairs onstage: absence of friends, absence of purpose, absence of relationships, absence of certainty. That’s just as relevant today as ever.”

You can see Tim Gebbels as Old Man, alongside Heather Gilmore as Old Woman, in The Chairs at the mac, Birmingham 12-13 April, the Lowry, Salford 15-16 April and Stratford Circus, London 28-29 April. Alongside the show, there are participation workshops giving an introduction to acting in absurdist theatre, open to all and free to attend, see here for full listing details.