My cat died today. At one indeterminable moment he just stopped being. “It’s very tempting to go, ‘it’s just a cat’ but that’s never the truth,” Chris Thorpe reassures me over the phone. He’s absolutely right: it’s a triviality to everyone else but me.
If Thorpe knows the right thing to say, that’s only to be expected because death is something he’s been coming to terms with recently. His latest show, Am I Dead Yet?, written with fellow theatre-maker Jon Spooner, looks at the moment of death from different angles through stories and songs.
It’s not the most cheerful topic, but Thorpe explains that the theme came from the fact that “we don’t talk about death in a healthy way". So what is a healthy way? “It’s not about thinking about it all the time. For me it’s acknowledging that it is going to happen and not separating it off as a different part of the process of being alive.”
Right across his remarkable body of work, Thorpe takes a theme and digs deep from an academic perspective, a human perspective and—most profoundly—he taps into it on a personal level so that a show will speak to individuals in a far-reaching way. He confronts the micro and macro.
“I choose to engage with things that don’t make sense to me. If it’s something that I think I’ve got sorted and other people haven’t, then what am I doing? Just trying to teach people what I know? Well, that’s not what theatre’s for. Or telling people that I’ve got the right answer to something? That’s not theatre, that’s church.”
With a clutch of Fringe Firsts to his name and collaborations with the likes of Belarus Free Theatre, Forest Fringe, Slung Low and RashDash, there are plenty of people who’d worship at his altar. Besides, there’s something almost religious, even messianic, in his intense and charismatic performance style. But ultimately he’s not offering answers. Instead it’s about showing his audience his workings. “I’m comfortable with never finding the answer but at least maybe I’ll come up with a different way of reframing the question.”
And unlike church he can’t tell us what happens after death; but he’s become well-versed in what happens during it. The how and the when of dying have significantly changed in recent years: “You’re probably going to be alive for a lot longer than most people have managed throughout history.” The show is as much about right now as it is about the universality of ceasing to be. “Death weirdly looms larger and larger the further away it might be because it takes away more. It puts even more pressure on the time that you’re here. The great unspoken can almost become this invisible puppet master that’s guiding your everyday life. And I don’t want that.”
Assisted suicide, euthanasia, Dignitas – this morally contentious issue is more prevalent than ever because we have found ways to live longer. And the longer we live, the more susceptible we are to incurable, degenerative diseases. That topicality feeds into the show.
“Human beings have this tendency to feel like we’re living on the cusp. If you imagine something like mining asteroids or viable colonies on Mars, they feel like possibilities, but possibilities that might happen in a future in which we’re not here. I think we’re in a similar position with death and resuscitation at the moment. We live with technology in our grasp, but there’s still a feeling that we might be the last generation to actually die.”
Despite the universality of death—we’re all going to face it one day—Thorpe insists that the show is as much about individual people as it is about the human race. “We could have all the machines and drugs that could ensure a full recovery from a massive heart attack. But if one ordinary person falls down from a heart attack and another ordinary person who witnesses does not know immediately what to do, then all those drugs, all those machines are entirely useless and the person’s going to die.”
The moral responsibility of the individual is confronted on a practical level with someone teaching CPR to the audience – which means this must be one of the only shows at the Fringe that could help save someone’s life. But “it’s not a public service show,” Thorpe warns, “it’s still a theatre show, and that subject works really well for the way that we like to make theatre. We make theatre that doesn’t pretend we’re anywhere else. Same with Confirmation, the underlying principle is that we’ve all turned up here in this room so let’s make it count."
Confirmation is the blazing, blaring monologue about confirmation bias that won a Fringe First in 2014, which Thorpe is resurrecting this year. Billed as an honourable dialogue with a political extremist, it may seem like a world away from soul-searching stories about death, but the two shows complement each other in strange ways. Running alongside Am I Dead Yet? is a Death Cafe where people come together over food and drink to talk about death.
“We did this in London and the widest variety of opinions and beliefs and philosophies turned up within the people who came, from a hardcore atheist sitting next to a Hindu priest. There were people who were facing the end of their lives talking to people nowhere near death but almost paralysed by fear of it, and it helps. It really helps.”
This plays into what Confirmation is about: people who have a diversity of opinion getting together and having a dialogue in a respectful way. But after a year of performing the show, Thorpe is increasingly aware of the way people surround themselves with others who reinforce their own views, everyone convinced that their reality and their community is right. I wonder whether this is not only true of theatre, but actually one of its strengths.
“It can be tremendously positive. If we weren’t able to do this, if we didn’t have these biases then we wouldn’t get anything done. It’s utterly necessary to have both sides of that coin, but once you’re aware that there is a coin with two sides you need to be able to ask yourself at any given point, ‘what am I seeing, what is that other person seeing, and what might the reality be?’ because both our realities feel equally real, but they’re kind of both wrong. But I agree, there’s a tremendous positivity in people coming together for a shared purpose.”
Parishioners, political parties, theatregoers – we all do it. We seek out the communities that comfort and reassure. We live, unthinking and unchallenged, until we die. And then what? We’ll just have to wait for Thorpe’s next show to find out.