Friday, March 16, 2007
Just back from Cambridge and one of the most extraordinarily harrowing and bewilderingly beautiful nights I've had in a theatre in ages -- and a pleasurable (if somewhat discomfited) hurtle through Wild Why from yrs truly at the bitter end-of-part-one. I don't think I can describe what I saw tonight. And in view of the number of people I've evidently pissed off and dismayed with what I thought were fair, if ungenerous, comments on Petra's Pulse and the Shunt Lounge, I think I'd better anyway try and be a kinder and wiser mammal for a little while.
I am definitely a bit bipolar-erratic at the moment but I can't blame that for the chronic vehemence of my pronouncements on theatrical matters and my insistence that minute differences of opinion and emphasis have world-shaping consequences for good or ill. I think in a way I just have to believe that it's all a matter of life and death because my life is so utterly consumed by this work. All of my eggs are in this one basket. I might be wrong about the particulars, I guess I probably am much of the time; but I couldn't face being wrong about the potential importance of theatre, the aspirations we can have for our own work and each other's, because if I were, I'm then suddenly stranded in the middle of a no-man's-land of inconsequentiality, and with no fallback plan for what to do with myself, other than swap one baleful mess of triviality for another. To many Thompson's readers I probably sound pretty hysterical some of the time: but then, you know, I'm standing right on the edge of the most terrifying abyss. Sometimes composure is a bit of a stretch.
Anyway, if I was hurtful or intemperate, if I ever am, you're quite right to call me on it, and I apologise. This is obviously a David Gray lyric, but I mean it, nonetheless. I'm a lover not a fighter. Actually I'm neither but let's not split hairs.
If you don't know who David Gray is, you might well be the sort of person who would be pleased to know that Lol Coxhill came to me in a dream last night. (Actually it was sort of a wrong number, he was looking for Hugh Metcalfe, but we chatted a bit nonetheless.) He wasn't glowing or anything but I was awfully reassured to see him. I'm sure this is the right policy -- in case any of you feel like coming to me in a dream. Glowing is definitely de trop. Unless you're the Ready Brek kid, in which case it's de rigeur. But I must admit I've always assumed you're not.
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
I have just sent everyone on my mailing list an email containing promotional details of the various projects I'm involved with over the next few months.
If you are not on my e-mail list, and would like to have a copy of that information, you can download the email, elegantly transformed into a .pdf, here.
Also if you'd like to be on my mailing list (and you currently aren't), please send an email along those lines to this address. It will ping back an out-of-office message which you can ignore.
Ah, jolly good, that's the multitudinous seas re-incarnadined for another season.
PS. I've just realised that the email, which was blind copied to over 200 people, contains the words 'stocks', 'meds', 'erotic', 'teen', and 'desire'. If your spam filter doesn't exterminate it on sight, you probably need to think about an upgrade...
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
1. Budget cut hits William Morris Gallery
I don't normally do this, but please do consider signing this online petition "to support the William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow, which due to budget cuts, has recently had its opening hours drastically reduced and its staff reduced – meaning that its Keeper, Peter Cormack, an internationally-renowned expert on William Morris and on stained glass, will no longer be employed by the Gallery." (Copied from an email originating from Dr Heather Haskins at the University of Reading.)
From the subjoined press release:
"Despite huge public protests Waltham Forest Council approved the £56,000 cuts to the William Morris Gallery and Vestry House Museum on 22 February as part of the budget for 2007/8. The cuts entail a dramatic reduction in opening hours and a serious reduction in staffing levels at both venues. Waltham Forest Arts Council have said of these cuts: "Whilst appreciating the need to find savings, the proposals in this form could prove a false economy and disastrously, if not terminally, weaken the service."
"These announcements are followed by a statutory consultation period, so please continue writing to MP’s and Councillors and spread the word. For addresses of councillors to write to, and for more information please see: www.keepourmuseumsopen.org.uk
"Access and interpretation are crucial to the success of any museum, and to reduce both is unacceptable. The Gallery is a vital international, national, and local asset to Walthamstow, and should be maintained accordingly. Please sign the petition and forward it on to friends and colleagues."
2. Andrew Duncan finally hits nail on head
From the introduction to the long-awaited and much-delayed Salt collection of interviews with upstream poets, Don't Start Me Talking, edited by Tim Allen and Andrew Duncan:
"Attention is a pure good. What brings states of high attention, is successfulI presume this is Duncan, it's his tang; if in fact it's Allen, my apologies to both. At any rate, it made me want to cheer and, you know, wave a football rattle around, or something.
as art without further ado."
3. Indie hits of yesteryear
Something about the Speed Death... project has really got me excited about the New FADS, a favourite 90s band who hadn't until recently been very much on my mind of late.
Here's some classic early New FADS -- before they quite scaled the heights but perhaps while things were at their most urgent. Andy Spearpoint, the vocalist, was a bona fide force of nature who, I'd have to say, I find more compelling than either Mark E. Smith or David Gedge, and maybe even Ted Milton. He's a community music teacher now, does drumming workshops and the like. Hope he's having fun. I'd rather be living on the planet where New FADS became U2-sized megastars and Bono ended up doing workshops in, I dunno, millinery or sunglasses or something for the Dublin Regional Authority. Apart from anything else, I bet the crime rate on that planet is sensationally low.
4. Man hits duck in face
I know it's a terrible story, and the bastards concerned should be shot; but the print version of today's Guardian accompanied it with an image, taken from secretly filmed footage, of a man hitting a duck in the face, and I thought, you know, you hardly ever see a picture of a man hitting a duck in the face. Maybe on the New FADS planet... Jeez. I can't go on, I'll go on.
Sunday, March 11, 2007
What a week, my friends. On Friday afternoon I finally got to a point where I felt so exhausted and run-down that I honestly didn't know what to do with myself -- I was out and about in town, with lots to do, but I couldn't even take the decision not to do any of it and go home because I really couldn't face the journey home either. Things have been really busy from the moment I got back from Sydney and I think I've been stressed out by that more than usual because I was trying so hard to preserve a little bit of quiet time in this February / March spell, before everything kicks off in April.
I'm also sleeping really badly, which is not like me -- as Ralph Wiggum says, "Sleep! That's where I'm a Viking!" In fact it wasn't until yesterday, by which I was feeling quite a bit better, that I made the connection I'm always slow to make. Early March and early October are the two periods in the year where I'm most vulnerable in my bipolar cycle, and though I don't generally get seriously depressed now without a specific trigger (unless I don't have much else going on, in which case it's likely to seep in), I very often at these times experience sleep disturbance and fatigue and a few other dodgy signals, like a furiously short temper and a real pall of misanthropy. (As Dorothy P said of Calvin C: "How could they tell?")
Fingers crossed I'm over the worst, and if that's the case then I've got off pretty lightly. I really should try to reclaim weekends. Yesterday was the first day since January 24th that I wasn't, essentially, at work pretty much all day. I just hung out at home, perversely enjoying not making the most of the sunshine, and falling deep into a YouTube catatonia. Actually to be honest I spent quite a bit of time working on An Apparently Closed Room too, but it's hard to think of that as work.
Anyway, here are a few nutshells with bits of my past week in them. I hope you'll forgive the lack of grand narrative.
(Actually slightly more than a week ago...:) Jeppe Hein's Distance at the Barbican Curve. Hein's Appearing Rooms, his fountain installation for the South Bank Centre, was my favourite piece of public art last year, and has been frequently on my mind in thinking about rooms for AACR. I didn't enjoy Distance as much, but it's worth seeing. It's basically a big one of these (though without the music, regrettably). It takes about five minutes to follow a ball around the whole circuit, and because the course runs the length of the Curve (and back again) you can't see the whole of the thing at once, which is neat. There are some nice moments in the plot of it, delicate and funny and occasionally surprising. Honestly, I think I was expecting more, and never quite stopped wanting more, but more what?, I couldn't tell you. It runs till April 29th and it's certainly worth a quick visit; take kids if you can, but don't nick any if you haven't, it probably doesn't make that big a difference.
I spent all of Monday (and most of Tuesday) getting ready for Tuesday, giving my paper to the Research Seminar at CSSD. I'm kicking myself a bit, I kind of underestimated my audience (and kind of overestimated myself), in that I thought I might need to pitch the thing at, like, postgraduate students who might not have spent much time thinking about the territory I was exploring (liminality and, for want of a better luggage tag, post-liminality), might not even know their way around the basics terribly well. As it turned out, my audience -- I think we call this one a select gathering, it wasn't the kind of size of turnout that makes you want to bathe in its rosy glow -- were all, or very nearly all, faculty, and had mostly turned out because they're already thinking in some detail about this stuff. Everyone was very kind and courteous but during the Q&A I started to feel like a fraud, really. I know I'm not, I'm just at the edge of my thinking capacities, and I never pretended to anyone that I was an academic. But I didn't have cogent answers to most of the questions, and though it was nice to feel stretched (and friendly enough company in which to do so), I did start to hanker for the sort of reaction I normally get when I start going on about post-liminality: polite smiling and a change of subject. On the whole it was a good experience and it certainly showed up the faultlines in my thinking -- in particular, it's incredibly difficult to separate out liminal aesthetics from liminal form, and liminal form in the artwork from liminal structures at the wider cultural level. Also, the event came with a nice bonus of dinner with the brilliant Simon Shepherd and a youngish scenographer called Simon Donger who was immensely engaging and attractive company. And pretty decent food, too: starting with a beetroot tarte tatin that definitely had me at hello... -- Unfortunately I can't share the grub with you but if you want to take a look at the paper I gave, you can download it here. There'll be nothing new to most Thompson's regulars or anyone who's tried to have a conversation about theatre with me in the past four years, but if you want to take a look, be my guest. Actually, I did manage to whip up an accompanying PowerPoint presentation that was, may I say, kind of tasty. But I'll keep that to myself.
Wednesday was the opening of the Petra's Pulse show Donkey Shadow at the Shunt Vaults, in a new reworked version featuring, for the first time in a PP show, a third performer: my old mucker Tom Lyall. I loved Donkey Shadow to bits when it was at CPT last year, though it was pretty clunky and needed a bit of further tinkering to really take off. Well it had quite a lot of tinkering (including the co-option of Tom and also of Wendy Hubbard, who turned my Kiss of Life into a functional theatre show just in time for its Australian outing), but it really struggled in a very curious and difficult performance space. (I was talking today to Shunt's Gemma Brockis about it and she said she agreed how ironic it was: Shunt held up as these exemplars of experimental practice, particularly in their use of space, and yet there in the space that Donkey Shadow was being performed, you have probably the stonkingest proscenium arch in all of London!) There was still plenty of gorgeous imagery and Selina in particular gave a beautifully nuanced performance, but the clunks were clunkier than ever, the longeurs more painful, and the ambitious length of the piece began to seem like a self-indulgent misjudgement. So it was kind of a disappointment and I also have to say I don't really care for the atmosphere of the Shunt Lounge, it's already feeling kind of cliquey and self-important, as if it no longer wants to exist in any kind of quizzical or subversive relation to the grandiosity of its surroundings. So it wasn't a fun evening. But the word from the front line is that the remaining performances of the show were way better, the clunks became clicks, the pros-arch was overwhelmed, in general everything was more tickety than boo. So, good.
Two nice items came in the mail on Thursday, both postmarked HomoLand. (You know, where the KLF were all bound for.) The new Semiotext(e) publication David Wojnarowicz: A definitive history of five or six years on the lower east side is a fascinating collection of interviews, mostly conducted by the estimable and never-less-than-shrewd Sylvère Lotringer, of Wojnarowicz's friends and collaborators (an unsustainable distinction), as well as a couple with the man himself. Wojnarowicz is a relatively recent enthusiasm of mine, partly because his work is not that widely known here -- perhaps it was more visible ten or fifteen years ago, but actually at the moment this period, the late 80s and early 90s, seems surprisingly remote; perhaps it's about now that its histories can start to be figured out -- in which case this volume has already done a fantastic job. It's a great book, an easy but by no means dumb read, with tons of great photos (including a stunning Nan Goldin pic of Rene Ricard and Jacqueline Schnabel standing either side of John Sex, which seems to say everything all by itself) and some pretty fine reproductions of DW's work. Vital stuff.
And a modest but sincere woo yay for Amnon Buchbinder's movie Whole New Thing, fairly new to DVD I think, in which a precocious hippie teenager called Emerson falls for his (male) English teacher -- a story that you'd think would have been told over and over again in queer cinema but I can't think of any other examples right now. It's a very neatly managed and sweetly pitched film and the leads, Daniel MacIvor (who also co-wrote) as the bemused and struggling teacher, and the heartstretchingly beautiful Aaron Webber as the kid, are basically perfect. Also, in line with the new generation manifesto for gay film (not so much Dogme as... no, I won't go there), the soundtrack is wall-to-wall Hidden Cameras, which always helps. I just hope all the Emersons all over the world, wherever they are tonight, get to see Whole New Thing. They're probably much too smart for it, but it would make me feel better.
Friday, as I say, I felt terrible, but I still hauled myself not-unhappily around the Gilbert & George show at Tate Modern. The only big surprise is early on -- I never realised how big those early charcoal drawings (sorry, "sculptures on paper") are. Wow, they're really terrible at that size. All the reproductions I've ever seen really don't do them justice. Or rather, what they do is extend them clemency. After that, it's pretty much what I've always thought: they had a fantastic decade, from 1975 to 85, but there's basically nothing here that's useful or interesting or even attractive to look at after that point, with the exception of the lovely and quite anomalous THERE (1987). The performance and film works are underrepresented and badly staged, which makes a really accurate assessment of their development immensely hard. I also don't honestly know how reliable is my judgement of their early/mid 80s work: I love the double bind of social realist and homoerotic iconographies all through that period, but I suspect that's as much my sentimentality dovetailing with theirs, as a sober assessment of their work of that period. Certainly all through that time, though, they come across as genuine visionaries, and as much more tender and more engaged than they are sometimes credited for. At any rate, it doesn't last. You can more or less see the exact moment where they lose the plot: it's pretty much the moment when the heart finally went out of the 80s, round about 1986, when the promise of post-punk and the widescreen posturing of New Romanticism finally capitulated under the weight of Thatcherite ugliness and the chronic depletion of the left. After that, there was nothing for it but the hell-for-leather retreat into the liminal self-sufficiency of Acid House and what Baudrillard certainly would have recognized as an entirely simulated and self-regarding fiction of social desire in absentia. The sole cultural carriers of the 80s qua 80s after that point were the Pet Shop Boys. Gilbert & George meanwhile sunk into a depressing and turgid series of as-new executions, which were now about nothing more than refreshing the brand. It's like looking at a series of Guinness commercials. There are still moments of very fine commercial design, as in the series NINETEEN NINETY NINE which I hadn't seen before, but nothing that looks like or resounds like art. Still, the first half of the exhibition is worth the admission price on its own -- I think if I hadn't been feeling so lousy I might have experienced an odd frisson or two of actual rapture. The CHERRY BLOSSOM pictures from 1975 are a particular revelation, and the DUSTY CORNERS series from around the same time. And LIFE WITHOUT END is clearly the work of artists -- sorry, an artist (I still have, and treasure, the letter G&G sent me, declining to take part in a symposium on collaboration because "we are two people but one artist") -- at the zenith of their/his powers.
I nearly didn't make it, physically, to the last appointment of the week, but I'm so glad I did, it was the most restorative event I've been to in ages. This was 'if the route: the great learning of london', a collaboration between the artist Beatrice Gibson and the musician Jamie McCarthy, at
Studio Voltaire in Clapham. An ensemble comprising four improvising string players (including my friend Susanna Ferrar, holidaying on viola) and ten trainee black cab drivers, all testing each other on 'The Knowledge'. This was an obvious (stated) homage to Cardew, and its proximity on every level to its grateful audience would surely have tickled C.C. no end. Beardy improv types (and the epically clean-shaven but honorary-beardy Peter Blegvad) mingled happily with the excited cheerleading families of the participating cabbies; I bet ACE are pretty chuffed with it too. I think it was being recorded for Resonance -- not sure of the details but keep an eye out: it was good to see the performance (and great theatre in some ways), but interesting also to shut the eyes and just listen, so I should think a radio version would work well. -- Also I ran into good folks: the brilliant young live artist Tim Jeeves, full of the loveliest ideas as always; Viv Corringham, not often seen in London these days and much-missed, but on good form; and Elizabeth James, who had a CD for me, Adam Bohman and Roger Smith's Reality Fandango, new out on Emanem, for which she's written some gorgeous sleeve notes. A quite astonishing album, thrilling and exactly matching my mood. (Which is, roughly, Septimus in Mrs Dalloway.)
So, yknow, in summary it doesn't sound like the listless and fractious week it felt like. I suppose that's a good sign. It's not that everything is all right, but it is that everything is all right enough, except, for the moment, me. Which is an old song to sing, in Klaus Nomi register and, ideally, at the top of one's voice. There's a lot to be said for basic, unglamorous persistence, sometimes.
I'm off to bed; if you read this in the next 24 hours it may be mostly hyperlink-free: I can't face that slog now, I'll do it tomorrow. Check back in after Monday night and, hopefully, the appertaining exits will be here, here, here, and here.
Saturday, March 10, 2007
Dear hearts, I just don't have the sense or the stamina to put out today, so I thought I'd disinter this below from the archive. I drafted it last month but didn't post it because there had been just too many lists, especially music, clogging the blog at the time, and one Nick Hornby in the world is, you know, ample.
If you didn't read the first Trembling Before P*d post, this is just a little featurette I thought I'd throw in from time to time, when I wanted to commemorate a particularly excellent random playlist generated by my iPod in shuffle mode. Excellent as in: fits my mood and fits the journey I'm making, but also alters my mood and overlays my perceptions of the world in unexpected ways. And all of the segues are cool.
Sorry for this chewing-gum. Will try to post something more substantial tomorrow.
Date: Tuesday 6th February, early afternoon
Journey: Home (N16) to Toynbee Studios (E1)
Travel: On foot
Journey time: 1 hr 20
Weather: Bright, sunny spells, worryingly mild
Notes: On paper (or screen), the early lurch into daytime Radio 2 c.1981 looks pretty grim, but actually was a huge, guiltless pleasure. After all, these tracks wouldn't be on the player if I wasn't receptive to them. Slightly odd sensation of suddenly realizing, in that weird, intimidating hinterland at the bottom of Kingsland Road before you hit Shoreditch, that I was singing along quite loudly to "I Know What Boys Like". This prompted a few minutes' reflection on the remarkable possibility of carrying out as complex a procedure as singing along to a record without consciously knowing you're doing it. Emerged from this reflection to find that I was singing along even more loudly, and in quite distressing tones, to Klaus Nomi, despite not knowing the words to that song.
Richard Butler, 'Satellites' (from Richard Butler)
Gastr del Sol, 'Blues Subtitled No Sense of Wonder' (from Camofleur)
Bob Marley & the Wailers, 'Waiting in Vain'
Jon & Vangelis, 'Outside of This (Inside of That)' (from The Friends of Mr Cairo)
Sad Cafe, 'Every Day Hurts'
Sally Oldfield, 'Mirrors'
Kate Bush, 'The Wedding List' (from Never for Ever)
Sophia, 'Bastards' (from the bonus disc to Technology Won't Save Us)
Sly & the Family Stone, 'Que Sera Sera'
The Waitresses, 'I Know What Boys Like'
Klaus Nomi, 'The Cold Song' (from Klaus Nomi)
Kraftwerk, 'Kometenmelodie II' (from Autobahn)
Fierce Girl, 'What Makes a Girl Fierce?'
Scissor Sisters, 'Take Your Mama'
Sparklehorse, 'Morning Hollow' (from Dreamt for Light Years...)
Radiohead, 'Like Spinning Plates' (from Amnesiac)
Silly Sisters, 'Fine Horseman' (from No More To The Dance)
p.s. One unexpected outcome of that journey was that I'm going to use the Gastr del Sol track in Speed Death of the Radiant Child. So there's a little inside information for you. Try not to trade it for magic beans.
Sunday, March 04, 2007
Eager as ever for constructive dialogue, I wanted to leave a comment for him at his blog ('Superfluities'), but his HaloScan comments box crossly informed me that it would be truncating my message because it exceeded 3000 characters. (So did the dramatis personae of Angels in America, but I didn't see anybody truncating that...)
So either: read George's post and then read the below; or, skip the whole darn thing and carry on redecorating the loft. Up to you, my dears.
Warmest thanks for taking the trouble to plow through my post and respond to its admittedly hardline propositions. If there's nothing else to be proud of in what I wrote, I'm glad that as a consequence it's already prompted some fine and pugnacious writing.
I've already had my turn, and there's not much to add to my original post, which I hope your readers might take a look at for themselves, in that I think perhaps your characterization of it is a little unresponsive to its occasional niceties. For example, I try to say pretty carefully what I mean by "broken", and it is surely clear from the post (though not from the soundbite you lift) that that process would necessarily include "exploration" and "examination". I would never wish for any living playwright's work to be insensitively trashed or treated disrespectfully simply, as it were, for kicks: but, I reiterate, the guiding responsibility must be to the theatre event, not to the playwright's secluded conception of it. Theatricality emphatically does not inhere in a play, it is the opposite of a play, for the reasons I delineate in my post. Writing in which theatricality inheres is what I start off my describing as 'writing for theatre'. You don't seem very interested in the distinction, which is fine, that's where we came in and I don't honestly expect to change any minds with what I write.
You're quite right that some theatre events that don't depend on the primacy of literary text end up being nothing more than empty spectacles, and I am as disdainful of those as you are. But it is reductive to imply, as you seem to, that all work built on these more recent models tends inevitably towards such vacuity. If that's been your experience, that's a pity. Though it is worth remembering how local to our cultures and our times is the Albee model. Global theatre is much older and much more various, as you know. The Albee model continues to prevail in our own cultural situation principally because it is compatible with industry and with capitalist enterprise. Which is, not least, how you end up with the farcical and distressing endeavour of good and faithful scholars tying themselves in knots over who exactly wrote what line of what we call Shakespeare. It's comical that I'm the one who ends up being portrayed as an extremist when it's the Albee position that ends up disappearing into its own fundamentalism.
I suspect the underlying difference between our positions, George -- and I'm glad you say this, because it explains much -- is that you think "it's not as if theatricality itself is inherently good or bad". I start from, and depend utterly on, the contrary position: that theatricality -- by which I mean not the decrepit artificiality of most commercial theatre, but the social relation into which the ideal theatre brings artists and audience -- is inherently good. The promise of theatre, in initiating a communal experience in which the only circulating capital is attention, is its potential to create lasting and meaningful change in people's understanding of their civic lives. If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't waste my time on theatre; perhaps as a consequence I would more blithely enjoy playgoing as a pleasant interlude in what would then be an entirely different working life.
May I mention, in passing, that while you're more than welcome to find my remarks not "very interesting", you can be assured that no bureaucrat has ever been impressed enough by anything I've said ever to give me a grant. Or at least, I have never made a successful application to the Arts Council of England. My work so far is supported only and entirely by producers who have seen it, live, and found it sufficiently interesting that they want to help develop it. So the suggestion that the strenuous theoretical tussling that, for example, my blog from time to time helps to channel is no more than modish blindsiding rhetoric designed to titillate arts funders is, honestly, a bit unworthy of you.
So there we are. You think I'm being vague, I think you're being pretty vague (particularly in your woolly defence of the imagined criticism of your comparison of theatre and music); I dare say we're closer anyway than we think. I note how you mention "Beckett's theatrical texts" rather than "Beckett's plays", and I'm sure you do so carefully, and I quite agree. Beckett is a paradigmatic example of the kind of 'writing for theatre' that I'm advocating. You don't, presumably, think of his late work as empty spectacle?
Hope you're able to discern "what the fuck I'm talking about" in the above, and furthermore in these
Phew. Where were we? Oh yes, the second most exciting theatre thing of the week. Well, my vote's going to Michael Sheen's spankingly good reading of Kenneth Tynan's theatre criticism, in the Book of the Week slot on Radio 4, tying in with the recent publication of Dominic Shellard's edition of Tynan's Theatre Writings. I haven't got the book yet, I didn't have a very formed impression of Tynan (at least of the particular character of his criticism), beyond sketches from other sources and a vague sense of ferocious intelligence gradually undermined by distractedness (mostly libidinal) and decline. As ever, what's missing from the caricature outline is the hard precision of the thinking. (No wonder the equally driven but essentially stupid and largely revolting Peter Hall couldn't abide the notion of keeping Tynan on when he took over the National.) Anyway, the readings were gripping, immobilizing; Sheen read superbly, a tricky task given the movement of ideas and tone in the writing. (We're so used now, not least in arts criticism, to irony being used to smudge and subdue, not to penetrate.) As of right now, all five programmes can be replayed at the BBC web site but will expire and be replaced seven days after broadcast. If you care about theatre at all and you didn't hear these readings, and particularly if your knowledge of Tynan is, like mine, diffuse and fourth-hand, I would really urge you to spend an hour and a quarter getting properly turned on by this unusually sexy intellect.
(It was a good week for this kind of 15-minute spoken word slot, which more often than not brings out the worst in programme-makers and readers alike. Over on BBC7 they were repeating a selection of Alan Coren's Times columns, read by the author. I know Coren's a bluff reactionary type beneath whose knockabout cartoon xenophobia lurks a thin streak of verité racism. -- News Quiz fans who think I'm overstating this should check out his Punch Idi Amin parodies, for example. -- But he's also, almost indisputably I should think, the best mainstream prose stylist this country's produced since G.K. Chesterton. Even when the attitudes it encapsulates are rotten, the writing is scintillatingly clever and musical. Talk about a guilty pleasure... Again, you've got seven days to 'listen again', as they perplexingly call it -- I wonder how many people use the facility to listen to a programme a second time?)
Tynan's criticism wasn't, however, the only controversial theatrical discourse being aired this week. As the Guardian arts blog notes, Edward Albee has been telling the LA Weekly that directors and actors are "the forces of darkness"; a little bit of his outburst is worth reproducing here:
"The big problem is the assumption that writing a play is a collaborative act.
It isn't. It's a creative act, and then other people come in. The interpretation
should be for the accuracy of what the playwright wrote. Playwrights are
expected to have their text changed by actors they never wanted. Directors seem
to feel they are as creative as the playwright."
Responses, according to the Guardian blog, have been various (though not at that blog itself, where the three comments so far left are uniformly pretty witless, even that of the normally reliably engaged and interesting George Hunka); personally it was, I had better admit, rather pleasing to see Alison Croggon quoting my remark from a while back about how there are playwrights and then there are writers for theatre, which still sums up how I feel about Albee's ilk. But perhaps this needs a little amplification in the light of a recent post at Encore Theatre Magazine, of whom I generally approve (even though they describe me as "affable", the shits): wherein, commenting on the new NT season -- at first glance literally nothing I'm remotely interested in seeing, by the way, which is a shame; maybe the honeymoon's finally over and we're back to a National Theatre that's turned completely in on itself -- they report on "a slight sense ... that the tide of fashion is turning against playwriting. Not from audiences, but from theatremakers." Encore goes on to describe this turn as "rather peculiar and strangely moralistic".
Not surprisingly, a few folks show up to tilt at this big fat Celebrity Pork Windmill, including a furious Jon Spooner and an emollient and largely sensical Notional Theatre (who incidentally has also recently turned in a smart development of my earlier discussion of Robert Wilson's architectonic procedures). But I think Encore may be right. I share the sense -- which Albee obviously has, and which even an avowed big-tent centrist like David Eldridge seems to have been expressing in his recent comments here -- that conventional playwrights (by which I mean, those who produce scripted plays which are to all intents 'complete' before rehearsals begin, though of course they may then be modified by the influence of the staging process) currently feel under attack. I can see why they would feel that, even though nobody ever really seems to attack them as such, which means that the ferocity of (what they consider to be) their counterattack can be surprising -- though not, I think, inexplicable, for reasons I hope I can unravel.
Encore rejects the label "text-based" for this kind of theatre; George Hunka, defending Albee, doesn't appear to: "in scripted theatre, [writing is] the primary, originating act." Both are describing the same thing, though, and so, it seems to me, is Eldridge; their position glosses, roughly, like this. We who are playwrights, or support and approve of the work of playwrights, are the first to acknowledge that many elements go into the staging of plays -- acting, direction, design, music, perhaps choreography, etc. -- along with the script; and we furthermore acknowledge, with cheerful magnanimity, that theatre is nowadays made in multifarious ways, quite a bit of it privileging these other elements above the specialist craft of the writer. We accept that, and we accept that it sometimes works, and we try hard to say so. [I exempt Albee from this characterisation, obviously.] But (they would continue) the reciprocity between the "text-based" wing and the "devised" / "physical" / "visual" wing seems lopsided. Why won't they say that what we do as playwrights, with our primary originating acts of script-writing, is also legitimate and valuable in the ecosystem of the big tent? (As professional writers they wouldn't stoop to countenance such metaphor-mixing; I hope they'll forgive me for this misrepresentation, at least.)
I've come to see that it is this imbalance of cordiality, as it were, that so infuriates the playwrights: so a slow-burn of resentment builds up, as in any off-kilter relationship, until one quiet evening you only have to ask what's for dinner and you get a fork in the eye.
So, what is this imbalance? What's actually happening?
I don't suppose that what I'm about to describe are the only two indicators that such an imbalance is real, and is wider in nature and in influence than simply its pertinence to the broad-church courtesies of variously inclined practitioners in a large and jostling communion: but they're among the most significant.
Firstly -- I don't know, are there any statistics on this? -- my guess is that around 80 or 85 per cent of theatre produced in Britain [using the word 'theatre' in its generally accepted sense(s)] is still created along conventional lines, with a director responsible for realising a script that exists more-or-less complete prior to the rehearsal process; some considerable proportion of that textual work may have been 'workshopped' or 'scratched' or whatever but the text even so retains its primacy and its discrete originality. In this light, it would certainly be accurate to say that a disproportionate amount of what you might call secondary cultural attention -- by which I mean media reportage and criticism, and, to a lesser extent, discussion within and around the creative industries as a whole -- is bestowed on the non-traditional: the 'devised', the hybrid, the non-'text-based'. (Forgive all these scare quotes, I can't bear to do without them.)
Partly of course this is something to do with the eye-catching qualities of innovation -- or, more accurately, both in respect of media and commercial interests and often the ideation of the work itself, the eye-catching qualities of novelty. Site-specific theatre, which is hardly ever pre-scripted by an individual before production work begins, is the obvious case in point: there's always an angle for the papers -- not just newness but urgency. The attachment to novelty (for its own sake) is, wherever it occurs, despicable, and my own feeling is that even innovation is in itself value-neutral. But the urgency also arises from the rapid come-and-go of these projects, particularly the 'go': they're not just unusual, they're news, and if you don't catch them while they're hot, you've missed an experience you can't have any other way. Like I keep not getting around to seeing Punchdrunk's ecstatically-received Faust, but I've got to get my act together and go: and that sense I have of 'got to' is not just from wanting to see something that lots of people think is great, but also that it's all or nothing: be there or miss it forever. Whereas let's say I'm not too bothered about not having seen The History Boys at the NT, because it was clear from the start it would tour, it would probably wind up in the West End, there would be a film version, a radio version, probably a book on tape, maybe eventually a tea-towel, and above all, there'll always be a published play text, so not only can I read The History Boys on the tube, I can also mount my own production some other time, or wait for a student company to take it to Edinburgh. This I know to be true: that most of the people howling "No, no, that's not the same thing at all!" at this lackadaisical attitude are precisely the ones who want to argue that the play text is "the primary originating act".
What I'm getting at, and this is not an accusation but simply a description of one element in the imbalance I'm trying to explore, is that a play text is not a piece of theatre, not yet, not ever. It can become part of a piece of theatre, but it will never itself be theatrical unless it behaves as do the other elements in a theatrical production (including the other elements in its own production), and disappears. Almost everyone, not least the most literary and conventional playwrights, will speak out in favour of the 'liveness' of theatre, will agree that this here-and-now ephemerality is one of the medium's special and distinguishing characteristics. So those productions that emphasize this complex of signs and conditions that we refer to as 'liveness' will inevitably commend themselves more immediately to audiences and secondary commentators alike. A play which hits the bookshelves at the same time as it hits the stage has already forfeited its claim to those attentions.
Secondly -- and again I apologise that I can't back this up with statistics but I'm certain it's true and I'm certain most industry folks would agree -- the way that theatre is taught, to some degree in schools but particularly in universities and on many courses in specialist theatre training institutions, has changed rapidly and radically in the past few years. Broadly speaking there are two reasons for this: one, the generation who started going to the theatre in the late 80s and grew up with the non-traditional theatre models of Complicite or Forced Entertainment are now of the age where they're not just delivering but actually designing these degree courses; two, work in these areas of theatre tends more often to arise out of an exploratory, questioning attitude, one that rejects or is anxious about orthodoxies -- and it therefore comes with a sort of built-in availability to strong educational and pedagogical processes. As the phrase "well-made play" implies, form for playwrights is secondary to content, in other words it's there to serve the content and set it up to its best advantage; this is precisely how it comes about that it's possible to tip the content of The History Boys into different containers and, though some modification is of course required, the essence of the piece remains the same, its qualities, its 'message' (if it will own up to having one, or many). In the work that the university theatre departments now favour, the medium is once again the message, and the question of what the theatre experience is, or can or could be, takes precedence over the surface detail of who says what to whom on what topic. (What's galling for the old guard playwrights is that this work is not simply the province of the academy; lay audiences flock to Lepage, to Shunt, to Stan Won't Dance, and find there a rich variety of pleasures and challenges.)
It seems to me, from the direct experience that I've had, that maybe half of all graduate and post-graduate theatre-makers coming about now into the industry take the methodologies and critical underpinnings of non-traditional theatre as read. It would no more occur to them to accept the Albee model of theatrical creation than it would to light their stuff with oil lamps or cast Beerbohm Tree in it. (Actually, the oil lamps they might quite fancy.) In a strict sense, some of this is worrying -- I suspect 'devising' is now too often an eight-week module with its own gradually ossifying orthodoxies, and we might be needing to clear that mess up in fifteen years time. But what it means now is a substantial shift in the expectations of younger audiences; it may not be a permanent shift in the culture, but it's permanent in those people, and they're going to be around for a while yet.
So: these two things, the disproportionate cultural saliency of non-traditional work, and the emphasis on that work in the encounters that younger audiences and emerging artists have with theatre as a whole, tend to unbalance perceptions on both sides of the fence. And of course both of these trends feed back into commissioning rounds and the operations of support and advocacy networks within and between institutions.
This is as fair and balanced (to borrow a phrase) as I think I can be about the cause of the "slight sense" of perturbation in the Encore ranks and the unappealing distemper of Albee, who, to be fair, has worked hard to develop and refine his own craft and become a playwright of some distinction -- by which I mean, it's a long road from Zoo Story to The Goat but you can usually tell it's him. (I'll take Zoo Story, thanks, and actually, that's it.) But he makes plays: not theatre, which is something completely else, and which he apparently cannot comprehend.
But I should be a bit more careful to say exactly what I'm getting at. I don't particularly mind what playwrights do, how and where and when they work; if they believe they get good results by writing alone, for 'characters' in their imaginations rather than for people they already know and talk to, then that's fine. I prefer to work among people, actors in particular, and to draw on what they have to offer: I'd rather have my writing emerge out of a conversation between many voices, partly because I think richer and more complex work emerges that way and I think those things, richness and complexity, are themselves distinctively theatrical qualities. But then I'm always writing for theatre, not writing a play. I also prefer to work in collaborative ways and in collective settings because I spend so much of my life in those sorts of working environments -- theatre is to me as Second Life has become to some other poor saps -- and if I get to help invent the terms and conditions of those working and living environments then I'd prefer them to resemble the sort of society I'd rather be living in, rather than making them in the image of the society I want to use theatre to examine and critique. But that's a personal commitment, and good results can certainly come through other set-ups.
It's easy for me to say because I generally direct my own writing, but the fundamental point is this: that at the moment that the playwright (I mean very specifically the writer of plays) hands over his play text to the director, he is handing it over to be broken. A good director will understand that this is traumatic and will behave accordingly, soothingly and reassuringly like a good mohel or a decent undertaker. But the play has to be broken in order to become available for theatre use, because the play is closed and theatre (properly) is open. What do I mean by closed and open here? The actual connotations of 'play' within the word 'play' as in 'play-text' have become a bit invisible, but they're there. A play is a little cell of fiction, secluded and complete (for all that it might treat of topical themes). As such it is a game, an ironic procedure, unable to sustain consequences outside of itself: the dead of the piece get up and bow, and even if on some self-consciously avant garde whim they carry on playing dead, we know it is still in play, because it's still in a play. For the play to be made into theatre, that closure has somehow to be breached. Some playwrights know this instinctively and will try to do it themselves, but very often will make the mistake of trying to do it at the level of content, by 'sharpening' it: use spiky realism or jagged sensationalism to skewer the bubble; but the bubble is a formal one, and to try to break it with content is like trying to untie a knot by swearing at it -- it makes you feel better but it doesn't get the job done.
The formal problem, on the other hand, can be solved only when the play is configured so that its form is compatible with the terms and conditions of theatre: when those distinctive qualities that we associate with theatre are allowed, if not to occupy, then at least to touch, at one point or along one surface, the secluded area of the play. The best -- the least traumatising -- solution is to write for theatre in the first place, to write from the get-go in a way that allows for, and ideally fosters and enjoys, liveness and contingency and unpredictability and ephemerality and, above all, the turbulence of the travel between stage and audience. You can still write articulately, beautifully, rigorously, with all the craft and attention to detail that your literary talent encompasses; none of that is prohibited. If you're determined to be the sole author of what is spoken in the room, so be it. (I'm about to do that with Speed Death, for a change; there is neither disgrace nor dishonour in it, necessarily.) All of that is possible in writing for theatre. It's just that what you end up with then probably won't be publishable in a perfect-bound Nick Hern paperback for sale at the usual outlets. The way some of my texts have ended up over the years, loose-leaf nightmares of scraps and diagrams and lists and images and smudgy xeroxed journal entries, would remind anyone of what Wittgenstein said about how if animals could talk we wouldn't understand what they were saying.
If that's too frightening -- why should it be?, but if it is -- then here are the only other options. Carry on writing plays, give them to directors whose approach you find congenial, and consent wholeheartedly to the necessary breakage. Carry on writing plays, and publish them without them being produced; this is not much different to writing novels, admittedly, but then, that's the contract you're offering. Or carry on writing plays and direct them yourself. You'll either fail to let go of the writing function, and create wretched stillborn non-theatre; or you'll break everything left right and centre, and conceivably have a ball doing it. Whatever route you take (and we can be sure that Albee will take none of them), one thing remains true. The director's fidelity is to the demands of theatre, not to the demands of the playwright; indeed, once the director has the text in her hands, there is no playwright. There is only theatre. The playwright in the rehearsal room is utterly and irretrievably fallacious. -- Or I suppose, there is one final option, the Albee-friendly option: continue to insist on whatever confused and superstitious model of theatre it is that's got you this far, the self-burning effigy that keeps on winning you those Pulitzers. Fret not, dear fellow, there's still plenty more of you than there are of us, and apparently we're already facing the backlash, as announced by Encore.
...The vitally important epilogue to this, though, is to remind everybody that there is as much untheatrical work on 'my' side of the fence as there is on Albee's. Devisors and, Lord knows, physical theatre practitioners can be just as self-deluding in their insistence on total control, repeatability, predictability, and so on. On this side, for 'play' read 'performance'. At least the deception is less complicated in physical theatre, as it doesn't depend on the further idiocy that most plays do -- the dismally unexamined notion that language is merely a window through which 'characters' may be viewed going about their business: with perhaps some overlay of 'style' by which the playwright's own voice may be identified and hailed in the service of the Individual Genius industry.
So don't imagine that the work that is routinely called (or calls itself) 'experimental theatre' is immune to such hidebound and defeatist anti-theatrical behaviours; don't for a second believe the apparent 'conservative vs. radical' faultlines. Only this week, Tim Etchells was apparently in town (at the second of the Siobhan Davies events I was talking about last time), describing his and Forced Entertainment's continued devotion to the idea of failure, and the amount of work and time and attention that goes in to making FE's on-stage "performance" of "failure" precise and repeatable and predictable. This is particularly exasperating because it's so close to being useful. For nearly ten years now I've been droning on about the vital importance of failure in theatre; but FE and its attendant failure fans, Adrian Heathfield and Matthew Goulish [both excellent persons, btw] and the like, make exactly the same reactionary category error as Albee. The creative fertility of failure inheres in the medium of theatre, the noise that distorts and displaces the signal and opens out the theatre experience by a thousand times, the failure that at once falls short of and exceeds the frames of performance and virtuosity. This is something fundamentally different to Etchells's project. Making work that is about these failures (while covertly trying to minimise them) is an abject dereliction of the possibilities for actual consequentiality in work that admits and discloses and is shaped by failure, theatre's perpetually breaking heart. FE's fetishistic mimicry of failure is the equal and opposite stigma of the BAC Scratch format's totemic simulation of risk. Forced Entertainment are brilliant and have been important (and Etchells in particular is, or was, one of the best theatre-writers of the past two decades): but if theatre now had its Guy Fawkes, I would want to send him not into the vicious nullity of the West End or the brooding grey conundrums of the big subsidised houses, but up the M1 to Sheffield, where, if I'm allowed to colour in this fantasy in a bit more detail, Forced Ents would be rehearsing for a revival of Showtime, and in would come Mr Fawkes with a real bomb strapped to his chest. I don't wish any of them any bodily harm, I just would like them to have to talk him out of it.
And before anybody asks, yes, I have just seen Tim Crouch's utterly brilliant An Oak Tree for the first time, and yes, it does (sort of appear to) say everything I've just said but in a third of the time and with five times the eloquence; fantastically good writing for theatre -- ...and yes, I did buy a copy of the very nicely formatted Oberon play text.
OK, rant over. Partly I'm warming up for Tuesday, when I (finally) get to give the paper to the graduate seminar at Central that I should have done in November and missed due to an appalling administrative failure here at Thompson Towers. I can't quite remember now what I intended to say before, but anyway this time out it's basically the above rant threaded around some ideas about the misuse of 'liminality' as a word and concept in performance studies. Except last night (sorry, this is the Jimmy Stewart thing all over again) I dreamt I turned up to Central and the graduate seminar turned out actually to be a hairdressing demonstration.
Which further reminds me, as a p.s. to my previous post:
Becoming Jane, cert. PG. "Contains mild sex references and scenes of boxing."
All together now: if I want that, I can get it at home.
Right-o, it's past my bedtime. But as the 38th Governor of California taught us to say: Albee back.