Notwithstanding the heartening news that My Bloody Valentine are recording together again, sixteen years after the indispensible Loveless, I had a sharp attack of the bleaks yesterday: occasioned mostly, no doubt, by the seasonal murk, but triggered specifically by this Guardian interview by Michael Billington of Dominic Cooke to mark the unveiling of the Royal Court's spring season. I genuinely admire Cooke, he's made the Court rather exciting again -- not quite exciting enough for me to actually go, obviously, but he's definitely got my attention, which hasn't been trained on that particular postcode for a long while. Why, then, should I reach the end of the article having lost the will to live? (...And I don't mean that in some cute comedic way; I mean I literally felt utterly defeated, vanquished, by what I'd read, and the rest of the day was a complete and miserable write-off.)
Well, Cooke makes the following remark, enthusiastically (and predictably) endorsed and amplified in Billington's commentary. He says: "With the formally inventive companies like Punchdrunk or Shunt, I'm always impressed by the exploration of theatrical language. But the challenge is to ally that to rich content. To get those two things working together, you need a writer. Explorations of space are always more interesting when they're linked to an argument or a provocation or an idea."
Clearly this is two separate points disguised as one continuous one. He's suggesting that only a writer can contain the apparatus for reconciling the possibly contradictory imperatives of form and content; and that "formally inventive companies" are unable to argue or to posit provocative ideas. This is, of course, Billington's current hobbyhorse avant la lettre and he restates it with some relish (presumably delighted to find himself, just a week shy of his 69th birthday, in such passionate accord with someone widely hailed as one of the most intellectually lively and interesting artistic directors around, and thirty years his junior), thus: "Cooke seems to me to have hit the nail on the head. Theatre, at the moment, is in an extraordinarily fluid state. But there has to be some way of combining the kind of interactive experience that young audiences crave with the emotional resonance of a writer's vision: otherwise, all you get is sensory titillation."
The really depressing part of this is not that I disagree with it, though I do; nor that it is reductive, though it is. What I found so disconsoling about it is how it is reductive, by what means it manages to arrive at this conclusion: part of the problem with which is that it is to some extent correct. Let me see if I can unpick this without alienating absolutely everybody...
What is being set up here, pretty obviously, is a sort of dialectical model of contemporary theatre that depends on and quickly obscures its utterly false premises. It is in its way a brilliant bit of legerdemain revisionism. Its position is this: that there is one type of theatre that is reactionary and disengaged, and that embodies all the patrician faults that prevent new voices and new audiences being contacted; that the alternative to this is the "sensory titillation" of the "formally inventive ... Punchdrunk and Shunt", which may be of interest to the faddish young but is necessarily superficial; and that the progressive solution to this unsatisfactory state of affairs is a synthesis which infuses "explorations" of "theatrical language" and "space" with the authority of "a writer", who alone is able to supply the necessary "content".
That concluding model is not in itself a problem -- one can imagine excellent and valuable work emerging on that basis. What's troubling is the initial binary characterisation. Not only is this the first time I've seen the obvious implication that the presently celebrated "formally inventive companies" are due to be superseded; but also it's (certainly not the first but I think) the clearest example I've yet encountered of the success of Punchdrunk and Shunt being used as a stick with which to beat, and a cloak with which to smother, a whole vast sector of non-literary theatre work. I'm not quite clear what the bundled-up suggestion is: that that sector is not part of the constellation 'theatre' at all and needn't be considered in relation to the question of what theatre is and can do; or that that sector has reached its apogee in Punchdrunk and Shunt, and, ultimately, not delivered. Either way, it's a gross and unsettling distortion and/or erasure of an enormous amount of professional theatre activity in Britain, and one that, even allowing for the conversational shorthand and the editorial pressures of a newspaper interview, can only seem either ignorant or expressive of quite a narrowly concerted programme. And yet there's something about it that I recognize, that chimes with a deep unease I feel about those of us to the left of the field, and where it is exactly that we're headed.
Let me try and clear out of the way the stuff about the "writer" first of all, and see if I can get this through without the customary slew of poison-pen responses caricaturing my position. Let the record be dusted off in that region where it says that I too am "a writer" and there's not much work I've made for theatre in the past ten years that hasn't involved me "writing" in one way or another. A lot of it's involved many other people writing, too. But what is "a writer" in Cooke and Billington's formula? Possibly they don't even mean the same thing as each other when they say it. I think it's quite conceivable that Billington is hearing Cooke saying something other than what he intends. What in what "a writer" does is the essence of it? Is it about producing a printed script? About there being some authored dialogue spoken by characters on stage? Is it about craft, about literary merit? Is it about the location of a specifically singular authority out of whose "vision" [that peculiarly hallucinatory term to which Billington so often has recourse] the actions of the piece are generated? Does the term "a writer" stand in here for the idea of the original playtext? Could we perhaps extend the designation as far as the idea of a "writerly consciousness", wherein the argument of a piece, as it may be expressed through narrative or dialogue or image or gesture or metaphor or interrelation or formal conceit, is originated, organized and distributed? In which case, might many people whose collective relationships are practised and attentive not share that consciousness? Might the tensions between their individual voices be no more deleterious to the prosecution of their argument than the opposed viewpoints of two characters written by the same author? Might the multiplicity of their perspectives not enrich that argument and extend the range of people whose own concerns might be reflected within its activity? Who was "the writer" who wrote 'A Disappearing Number'? Who wrote 'The Colour of Justice'? Was 'Black Watch' in no sense co-authored by John Tiffany and Steven Hoggett? How many people wrote Shunt's 'Dance Bear Dance'? It was full of cracking dialogue and content of amazing richness and complexity. If more than one of them is "the writer", does that mean no one is? Would the Royal Court pass up the opportunity to look at a piece by Unlimited Theatre, say, on the basis that it had been scripted by three or four people? Sounds like it. But if collective work by that many hands is inadmissable, then boom, you've just lost from the canon The Witch of Edmonton: one of the greatest plays in the language, and certainly one of the most provoking in its arguments.
I hope it's clear that these nagging questions don't arise out of a desire to see the Royal Court abandon its commitment to writers and writing, which is pretty much its raison d'etre after all. But they do stem from a baffled curiosity about how the Court expects to be able to act on its commitment to writers in contemporary theatre culture if it can't get its head around the new basics of where writing is happening, and who is doing it, and how they're working. The singular playwright is by no means an endangered species, nor do I wish any ill upon their heads, but they're only a subset, and as thinking about the functions of theatre shifts (as it must, because the possible functions of theatre are manifestly relative within a wider cultural, social and political situation), there are many really worthwhile theatre writers to whom that operating model looks increasingly anachronistic and bizarre.
Be that as it may: as I say, what I find really troubling about the Cooke/Billington exchange is not how it reflects on them but what it says about us, the upstream artists who are working to create a whole array of alternatives to mainstream issue-driven literary-theatrical practice, and about how summarily we can be written out of a picture that nonetheless accepts in principle such big-ticket propositions as site-specificity or interactivity. All right, we may question their motives: perhaps (to be as ungenerous as possible) they simply want to carry on giving us work with all of the textual authority and pin-down control that they like, swaddled quite cynically in the shiny giftwrap of this weird "exploratory" stuff that seems to get the kids and the school-buses and The Culture Show right where they're needed. But the joke's on us: we're the ones who've made it too easy for them to dismiss the most visible, far-reaching new-model work now being made as "titillating" but essentially vacuous.
Now, sure, I think Cooke is quite wrong to suggest that the formal organization of work cannot in itself be a kind of "argument" or "provocation". In fact, my own work, or at least my thinking around my own work, is very substantially predicated on the idea that form is argument -- a position brilliantly elucidated recently by Andy Field (who has also written in a similar vein to the foregoing in relation to Billington's misleading us-and-them mentality). But not every bit of formal rearrangement has political resonance; nor are Shunt and Punchdrunk actually all that daring at a formal level. A promenade audience may still be stuck in the most conventional of mental auditoria if it does not feel some meaningful sense of co-authorship and power-sharing. I must admit I've never seen Punchdrunk and I'm finding it hard to muster the enthusiasm to get down to The Masque of the Red Death for precisely this reason: its (up-to-a-point) free-range spectators are not empowered so much as dispersed, without either the knowledge or the consequential freedoms to have a traceably transformative impact on the action they are observing. As for the work Shunt has created since it took occupancy of its new Vaults in London Bridge, its formal life is clearly dictated to a very large extent by the problems imposed by the performing space, none of the individual regions of which is big enough to hold an entire audience of the size that Shunt attract (and require in order to make sense of their financial bottom line); so the fractionalising of the audience in Tropicana and Almato Saltone is at least in part an arguably inadequate solution to a logistical pressure.
What Punchdrunk and Shunt both seem to me to be exploring, and in respect of which their work may be considered experimental, is the way that entertainment has changed radically in the last decade. The art, as it were, of entertainment -- as I know I've said here before, quite recently -- has always been about holding a roomful of people together. Radio and television obviously changed the sense of the "room", which became virtual rather than, or as well as, real. But now, in a multi-channel, user-driven, on-demand environment, and in the age of Web 2.0, the emphasis is on the individual consumer and their sense of "valid" experience, which may, especially initially, be quite isolated; only later will it be translated into a shareable narrative or a communicable impression -- re-told at the office watercooler, say, or uploaded to a blog. In a way, of course, this mirrors the aspiration in much contemporary upstream theatre to create narratives or images or propositions that uphold and respond to multiple, possibly even infinitely multiple, readings: in that, too, the notion of treating people as an undifferentiated mass has lost all credibility, because it's practically impossible to assume anything about the shared experiences and values of the assembled spectators outside the theatre. In either case, however, the notion of genuine interactivity and site-specificity remains a pertinent and daunting challenge to the levels of choreographic and manipulative control that the sophisticated spectacles of Punchdrunk and Shunt structurally require. I'm sure Red Death is an exhilarating experience, which produces reactions at a potentially more significant level than mere "titillation": but the kind of interactivity it offers is actually not much different to those in other stations of noughties entertainment -- pressing the red button on your remote if you want a different camera angle; clicking through a hypertextual matrix of choices that cannot possibly exceed the dimensions that its creators have anticipated and consequently delimited. Categorically this is no more interactive than turning the pages of a book or moving your head to look at a different part of the room; it offers merely a simulation of interactivity, and it's this insubstantial, simulacral, in-formal quality that makes it transferable in the way that Cooke and Billington envision. Until there is a greater equity of power and authoritative control between makers and audience -- even (or perhaps especially) if that means none on either side -- or until the actual distinction between makers and audience becomes functionally untenable (and not even I would be an unconditional advocate of that) -- the experience of interactivity is going to remain pretty much akin to the conversation that your dentist strikes up with you only after she's tilted you back to horizontal and filled your mouth with cotton wool and diabolical cutlery.
Similarly, site-specificity and site-responsiveness, which only a few years ago felt like they might have almost revolutionary potential for the future of theatre, have too seldom delivered on that promise, for more or less the same reason: the engagement of makers has too often been superficial and opportunistic, with the result that the bulk of this work merely replicates the conventional power relations of theatre-based production, transferring its old corked wine into sexy new bottles to no actionable effect. Again, there is an initial charge of novelty and defamiliarization which can provide a sensational and stimulating jolt. But the real challenge of site-specificity is not the exchange value of its site, no matter how interesting its history or picturesque its features; no, the argument within the concept of site-specificity is an argument about the significance of the specific: or, in site-responsive work, the reponsive. Most theatre (and perhaps especially work in unusual sites, which may need to be highly predictable and controlled in order to comply with particular health and safety impositions) cannot deal with the specific. It is made for a generic, vaguely imagined (or completely unimagined) audience, in advance of their arrival, on the basis of a complex of more-or-less sustained assumptions and anticipated conditions. This is where the cat test comes in. Let loose a cat in the performance space: if the piece can accommodate and include and refer to the cat, in all its feline unpredictability and unwillingness to comply with the structures of performance, then you've got a specific piece. When we made Homemade in 2005, it couldn't be site-specific because we hadn't seen the performance space (whatever home we were in) beforehand and hadn't designed the work with that particular space in mind; but it was genuinely responsive to each site, and to each audience, and it could -- and occasionally did -- quite easily absorb the presence of children and animals (to quote the old adage: which is, after all, as good an indicator as any of how unprepared for the specific most theatre is).
So there we are again. A whole raft of work being made at the cutting edge that gains its brownie points from the cosmetic adventurousness of its setting in this disused abattoir or that abandoned caravan. But it's refusing the imperatives of liveness with exactly the same high-handedness that would pretty quickly be brought to bear if you released a cat onto the stage of the Royal Court on your next visit. So no wonder Cooke can welcome -- and has welcomed -- with open-arms the notion of site-specificity; in the state in which it comes to him, there's absolutely no reason why site-specific work should disturb the status quo as regards the sacrosanct power of the single author.
Over and over we see this pattern repeated across the whole breadth of soi disant experimental work. Ask most experimentalists what they expect their current production to end up looking and feeling like, and after a brief and airy protest that they've no idea, they'll probably be able to have a pretty good stab at describing the end product, and probably get fairly close. Ask them what the hypothesis is that they're subjecting to experimental scrutiny, however, and they'll very likely be completely non-plussed. There is this persistent misrepresentation of the nature of experiment which is merely one aspect of a working artistic culture that promotes the loose and the vague precisely because it's so scared of, so completely unable to deal with, the totally unknown and the completely unpredictable. The reason I inveigh so repetitiously against the more pernicious aspects of Scratch culture is that it encourages exactly this tendency towards fogginess and generalization: you start by not really knowing very much at all, and then slowly sculpt a work out of unexamined experience ("that felt all right", "that didn't really work") and feedback ("it was a bit too long", "I liked the big red chicken"), like the newscaster on The Peter Serafinowicz Show who has to get through his bulletins entirely on guesswork alone, a buzzer sounding every time he gets a detail wrong and a bell when he's right. Meanwhile, the marketability of work continues to depend on being able to talk about it in certain ways at the right time and backed up by the right images, and secondly on that work continuing to deliver broadly similar experiences repeatedly throughout its life: a set of expectations that starts to function like a weird sort of prosthetic skeleton entirely outside the work itself but somehow placing and mobilising it and imposing on it a completely alien coherence: to the extent that, in consort with the audience-friendly vagueness of the work itself, we wind up with the structure, the form, and some elements of the content being principally situated outside of the performance situation itself. The theatre event becomes simply a seance at which the phantasmic show as a marketing proposition is contacted and channelled, to the vague but tacit bemusement of everybody involved.
We are, I think, as beset upstream as they are downstream -- perhaps even more so -- by a lack of rigour, which causes us to value the wrong bits of what we're doing right and to feel equally surprised by the stuff that seems to work and the stuff that doesn't. We tend to work too often in isolation and, dare I say, somewhat competitively, which means that we don't have a very developed vocabulary for talking about what we're doing: so that lexical gap is filled with buzzwords that never get subjected to real scrutiny. We say our work is 'experimental' but we don't know what it is we're testing. We say it's 'risky' but can't say what's at risk. We say it's 'radical' but nobody ever asks us what that means. 'Challenging'? Sure, but challenging whom, and to what effect, and why? 'Innovative'? To what ends? These sorts of questions constantly go begging. We're discouraged from setting an agenda and derided for having lofty ambitions. (We might reject Billington but his assertion that "theatre can't change the world" has as many adherents in the bar of BAC as it does down at the end of the pier.) We want the cachet of vanguardism but are desperate for a little bit of popular acclaim, so we're terrified of being thought pretentious (a word which has a far more perjorative ring in British culture than anywhere else in Europe).
Where does all this fear and constraint come from? Well, in part, certainly, from the people who commission, fund, produce and market the work. A desperate misunderstanding of the crucial question of 'accessibility' makes everyone with any money to spend absolutely shit-scared of anything that remotely smacks of intellectual commitment: which means that that kind of diction, that level of discourse, is airbrushed not only out of our connections with audiences (who are, let's remind ourselves, way more open, and far readier to meet high expectations, than we allow ourselves to believe), but also out of the conversations that accompany the processes through which our work is made. BAC, which to such a great extent sets the agenda and the tone, went through a really gruesome phase a couple of years ago, presumably driven at least partly by fears around funding, of talking about the shows it hosts as if it quite concertedly rejected the idea of intellectually vigorous work; as far as I can tell, it's got over that now, but everybody knows and recognizes that strain in British theatre.
A major factor in this, which I think is underacknowledged and in some ways too painful to be spoken about freely and candidly, is the absolutely massive desertion of the territory of theatre over the last twenty years by artists and companies who consider themselves to be part of the avowedly (if unsustainably) distinct field of live art. The reasons for this are too complex, I think, to be teased out in a post that's already getting a bit too long for its own good. (Though I would however recommend an interesting and provocative piece by Cassie Werber of Chopped Logic, in I guess the autumn 2006 issue of Total Theatre Magazine -- I'll try to check the reference, responding to her first visit to the National Review of Live Art.) At any rate, this is I think clearly as much an aversive as a self-actualizing impulse: in other words, these are often artists who have found even the militant tendency of upstream theatre to be inhospitable to the kinds of investigations that they wish to enact, and for whom the live art circuit provides a more congenial context and a manageable refuge. This has had immensely positive as well as negative consequences, of course: a great deal of very fine and important work emerges in that territory, some of which finds the audiences it deserves; and of course there are numerous venues, festivals and other sites where the two worlds overlap and may become indistinguishable. Nonetheless, when we theatre-makers look at this work, no matter how positively we may respond to it, the basis of that response is not, "this is theatre", but "how can theatre use this?" It's a perfectly all-right question, but the people who could best help us answer it are exactly those who have provoked it in the first place by calling down a plague on our house; those of us who are left to answer it, convinced that we are making theatre but content with almost none of the models of theatre that presently obtain, are -- sometimes, at least, and as I was yesterday -- a pretty vulnerable and lonely bunch.
And the worst of it, at least if one's prone to gloomward spiralling, is that I just don't feel that I'm doing nearly enough to make work that fully reflects my aspirations or functions correctively on the wider scene. Partly, of course, at the moment, that's because I'm not working at all; this is probably the longest fallow period I've had since I started freelancing, and I have to admit it's doing my head in. (Not least because the slump of inactivity is compounded by an inevitable looming shade of paranoia. Like, Lyn Gardner mentioned me in dispatches a few days ago, describing me as "under-used": which of course is kindly and supportively meant, but it's hard not to brood on the trajectory that's taken me from "promising" to "maverick" to "under-used" in such a short space of time -- you don't want to plot the parabola of that progression, do you?)
But also, when I am making work, I'm pretty ineffectual in resisting the same pressures --commercial and promotional and practical and, of course, egotistical -- that shape everyone else's activity. I have a reputation, barely deserved, for being a hard worker and a prolific maker; but if I look back over my c.v., there's really very little that gets even close to the ideas of liveness and power-sharing that I feel so compelled by in theory. Homemade, and to a lesser extent We Must Perform A Quirkafleeg! and my domestic Tempest, were good shots, Homemade especially. And some of the less visible work at CPT, like the ensemble pieces The Big Room and Past the Line Between the Land, and his horses for and with Theron Schmidt, has come close in certain ways, though The Big Room would probably also have to be accounted one of my less successfully realized projects. All in all it's not a great strike rate, and the lion's share of the blame has to rest not with irresistible extraneous forces but with me, with the seductiveness of authorial power and the regrettable comfort of unaverted conventions. And, Lord knows, Past the Line was never going to get me to Sydney Opera House. (Actually I think my current association with Artsadmin might help with all this, and I'm at least focusing more-or-less principally on these questions and their immediate ramifications in my current research and development work with Theron for An Apparently Closed Room, which I'm pretty sure will emerge in some showable form or other next year.)
Even in my most stringently self-critical moments there is this sense of deferral and indulgence and horrid gameplaying strategy. The other day, having an idle drink in the Royal Festival Hall, I wrote what I still find a quietly heart-quickening manifesto on a series of paper napkins, the basis of which was a commitment that I would start to make work that was titled only by the year of its performance. In other words, that in 2008, I would make one piece, called 2008. But it would be different every night (or whenever), on every stage or in every space, in whatever context. You might see 2008 on a big main-house stage or in a fringe space or at the top of a fire exit round the back of Debenhams; and it would change not only in each new venue but even from show to show in the same venue. It would still be able to bring together all the different elements I like working with. It might be a solo one night and have a cast of twelve the next. It might be full of text or have no text, or be a dance piece, or just be the cat in the room. Nothing about my approach would be different in any way, except that I wouldn't be conforming my work to the standard expectations of programmers and promoters -- and audiences, of course. You might see 2008 three times and love it the first time and take someone to see it the following week and hate it because it's completely different. The point is, it wouldn't be doing anything that wasn't absolutely built in to the (revised, refreshed, updated) theatre contract. Repeatability? Predictability? Why would you, in theatre, if not to fit with the commodity demands of the market and its various supporting discourses?
It all felt very brave and very exciting and then I started going... weeeelll, except, obviously not 2008, because I've got particular stuff lined up for 2009 that I really want to do. So 2010, then. Except I'm going to need a certain cachet and a certain level of trust before I start, so that venues and festivals and such won't immediately dismiss this bonkers working practice out-of-hand. So, blah. I'll see you in 2012 for 2012. Which is kind of like that old familiar disgusting refrain: I've got to lose weight, it's vital, I'm going to change my eating habits. ...Starting Monday. Give me cake now. More cake.
There was a little flash of inspiration, actually, a couple of days ago. I'm having another crack -- doing a bit better this time -- at Nicolas Bourriaud's Relational Aesthetics, which is pretty much now established as the key text for thinking through the kinds of questions I've been discussing here: though in the context of contemporary art: but it's obviously a really useful departure point for theatre too. Anyway, I came across a sentence which gets closer to my own outlook and aspirations for theatre than anything else I've read in a while. Bourriaud says: "The role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real." I think the situation with regard to theatre is a little bit more complex than that -- I'm not quite sure why but I think it doesn't entirely tally with my understanding of the liminality and subjunctivity of the performance space, and the onward transferability of information and experience out of that space: in other words, he perfectly describes theatre but not the function of performance within theatre. Nonetheless, it's a workably clear and stimulating statement to live by for the time being. Almost needless to say, it immediately reminded me of a not dissimilar remark I'd read a few days earlier, discussing The Masque of the Red Death: "What we are witnessing is a new kind of public event that combines a personalised, individual quest with a communal experience ... [This] strikes me as a pleasurable diversion from the main business of theatre, which is to grapple with social reality and change our perspective of the world." Which, of course, is Billington. B-boom tish.
So I went early and despondently to bed and cheered myself up with the almost comically masturbatory manoeuvre of listening to the iPod playlist of music I've already compiled in working towards one of the shows I'm hoping to make in 2009. It's going to be one of the sweetest, most accessible pieces I've yet done. I mean, sure, as I've said before, don't underestimate the amount of experimentation that's going on in some of the best work in the mainstream; but still. It hardly feels apropos. But it did feel nice, last night.
And from there, I was only a nudge of the scrollwheel away from listening to Rupert Goold's recent TheatreVoice interview with Heather Neill (you can now subscribe to a TheatreVoice podcast, if that notion takes your fancy): and that cheered me up even more. Rupert and I make quite different work but it's just such a pleasure and a relief to listen to someone so smart and so articulate talking about the stuff they do. He's as thoroughly steeped in the core lineage of theatre practice and theatre history as I'm thoroughly not; and in fact, although I suspect we think in quite similar patterns, pulling together these disparate ideas and influences and holding them in a not-always comfortable or resolvable juxtaposition (he talks fascinatingly about his current smash-hit Macbeth being really two productions, or two conceptions, at once, which I absolutely recognize in some of my own non-smashes), the most obvious difference between us is that his world is much more centrally constituted -- he's drawn to the grand narratives of history, the big cultural figures, the canonical works; whereas I skulk in the margins, watching Gregg Araki movies and reading Peter Larkin. At the end of it all, however, as you'll hear if you listen -- as I recommend you do, it's a really enjoyable and bracing half hour -- he names Simon McBurney and Robert Lepage as theatre-makers who are "so far above" anybody else, and to whose model (as writer-directors) he aspires. And yup, I'd probably name the same pair.
Which gently reminds me -- as if I need reminding; except, yesterday, I did -- that for all the fretting I, and we, might do, about centres and margins, about upstream and downstream, about playwrights vs. theatre-writers, and about utopias vs. 'the existing real': whatever is happening in the relations between all these various ideas and commitments as we bob up and down in our own contested pluralism: undeniably, and unmistakeably, the centre is shifting. As Inua says, and Mos Def doesn't quite: the universe expands left.