Wednesday, 25 April 2007

I Advise You to Rock it Out...


Welcome to the Brick Lane Advice Booth. The most appropriate London conception since one gaslit evening Charles Dicken's parents decided they liked the cut of the other person's jib. Every Sunday, from about 2pm onwards, my partner and I lug a table, four chairs, a lollipop jar and an old typewriter down to the Brick Lane Market, and for the low low price of a pound, we offer to listen to your problems.

We've had a lot of problems. I mean, yes, we personally, like everyone, have had them, but what I'm referring to is solving other people's problems, which is exactly what we're aiming to do. There are a few questions we get asked all the time. The first is, "what exactly is this?" (Which is a question our myspace friend Sebastian recently posted on the comment board.) Some people think it's political art, some people think it's performance art (especially when they hear about my penchant for the theatrical) some people think we're begging (jerks) and some people just get it. It is exactly what it claims to be- two perfect strangers who, for one (refundable) pound are willing to listen to your problems and let you know what we think you should do about them. I guess it is art, and it is political, but only in the sense that in these rotten times just about everything could be called art or political. What it really is is a service that we hope to provide to a lonely city. In a place where friends are about as easy to grow and shed as hairs, sometimes you need someone who is willing to empathize for half an hour or so.

And it's not a counsellor, or a psychiatrist, making it slightly less formal and much less expensive.

Which brings me to the second question we're most often asked: "What qualifications do you have to be doing this?" I should probably point out firstly that this question is ridiculous when there is a poorly drawn sign above our head that says in Pencil Crayons "Advice One Pound." To have someone take your lollipop, sit themselves down, give you one whole pound, and then ask to see your psychiatry degree shows just how far the currency of a university education has plummeted. We used to get defensive and explain that my partner has a postgrad in English and I am working on a postgrad in Theatre. But now we just smile broadly and reply loudly, "We're not qualified. We're just willing to listen." Which seems to satisfy every one from Chimpan-A to Chimpan-Z. Why the heck would we need a degree anyway? Do your friends have degrees in psychology? Does your mother? (Don't answer that. It doesn't matter if they do.) What they definitely have is an ability to listen. And what we have that they don't have is the objective distance of a stranger.

I'll expand: A very attractive woman came up to our booth and explained that a guy she liked wasn't calling her. What should she do and how long should she wait? (We get this type of question at least once a week, and it is always asked by exceptionally attractive, funny and interesting women. I had no idea how wide spread evolution's terrible joke of wanting someone because they seem unavailable really was until I started doing this booth.) It was incredibly satisfying to be able to say, "I think he doesn't appreciate you, and to be honest I think he never will. You should just get over it and move on with your life. I think you're his 'just in case' girl, and you deserve to be more than that." Now, if I'd said this to a friend they probably would have slapped me, but she smiled gratefully and said, "I had a feeling that might be it. Thank you." Of course there is always the danger that she was just generally a bit of a pessimist about him for no reason, but if a guy hasn't texted you back in two weeks, generally it does mean you should forget about him.

So sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind, which we realize. We often comment that when someone asks you for advice they always hint to you what kind of answer they would like, it's more often their reason for wanting that answer that you should delve into. "My friend is really mad at me, but that doesn't make me a bad person, does it?" for example, usually means that the person asking actually does feel guilty and probably should apologize to their friend. They are looking for reassurance. Whereas some people are just looking for that extra step, that outside push to get them to move on with their lives, or behave a little bit more courageously.

I don't always feel like the advice is perfect. Sometimes I struggle with what to tell someone, I worry that they will take us too seriously. (Loads of people have asked us if we are fortune tellers, which we most certainly are not.) But I suppose I always try to listen, my partner does too, and what we really get out of it at the end of the day is a nice way of remembering that we're all in this together. (whatever it is.)

Although what we do most definitely is not theatre, I will for a moment compare the two. A friend of mine recently commented that people go to see plays to empathize with the characters. Empathy is the most important barometer of success. Upon reflection I realized that empathy in theatre is a two way street- as a playwright or actor or director or theatre-maker, so much of what we do is about asking the audience to empathize. Rainer Werner Fassbinder said in an interview about film making, "I work because somehow when I work I feel less alone." People go to see plays and enjoy them for this same reason- to be broken for a brief moment out of the solitude of existence. Like the advice booth, if you share your experiences, we'll share ours, and even though we're strangers, and things are scary, and this is London, we're all so very alike. So that's what it comes down to, for me- a moment where, with the comfort of a marketable exchange (a pound) we can all remember that we're here. Which is the best we can ever do, to be fair.

4 comments:

Andy Field said...

Well that's all well and good but Dicken's parents were from Portsmouth...

Andy Field said...

Oh. And Costner post is on the way.

Deborah said...

They were visiting London, that's what got them in such a romantic mood.

SCHRmm said...

Hey neighbours! I came to you today (The girl with the yellow jumper and fabulous glamorous non-problems that didn't involve Prince and a purple dungeon) and think what you are doing is great. As a Brick Lane resident I welcome you, it's the best service the street has had so far. I will be back for more.