Friday, July 11, 2008

Tone clusters; or, The audience is listening...


This comeback post being a bit on the mammoth side, I thought I'd break it up a bit by posting a few variably apropos photographs of ...Sisters, in performance (colour) and rehearsal (b&w).
All photos are © Simon Kane. (This one, not that one.)



It was only when I started getting comments and emails in the last few days along the lines of "O Controlling Thompson, why hast thou forsaken us?" that I realized a good six weeks had gone by since my last post -- possibly, I think, the longest interruption in service that this (at the best of times none too hectic) blog has endured. Perhaps it doesn't matter overmuch -- though naturally I apologise to anyone who's misplaced their spiritual path as a consequence, or fallen into petty crime or nocturnal caterwauling -- but it does seem to indicate something of the immersive quality of the undertaking that's intervened. It feels impossible that a month and a half has elapsed since Utah Phillips died, I'd have sworn it was a fortnight tops; but between then and now, ...Sisters opened at the Gate, played thirty-one times, and closed (in a delightful flurry of champagne, quails' eggs and rabbit droppings).

Before I get stuck into matters arising I had better essay a remark or two of my own: though none of this, I think, will be illuminating exactly. ...Sisters has been certainly the most demanding project I've worked on, the most difficult and exhausting and mind-addling; certainly also one of the most rewarding and perhaps the most continually intriguing. I don't think I ever got bored of seeing it -- though it was, I suppose, some nights, boring for quite long stretches, but for reasons that were always half-hidden and therefore consistently fascinating. I wrote in an earlier post about the challenges of rehearsing this work; obviously, given the nature of the project, those difficulties were not soothed by the time we opened to the public, nor by the time we closed: in fact, I think they only intensified, to a level that was actually deeply uncomfortable during the preview week leading up to press night, when the cacophany of kindly meant but inevitably mostly wayward feedback -- you remember feedback, it's that high-pitched whining sound that accompanies most worthwhile adventures in rock 'n' roll -- was almost too much to handle. My inexperience, partly -- inexperience not in making work per se but in making work that anybody's monitoring for its viability -- though also a quite understandable reaction to a piece that was obviously going to extend its adolescence far beyond the usual timeframe.




I suggested last time that I thought that critical reaction to ...Sisters would be cool-ish, and possibly even hostile. This in fact wasn't by any means the overwhelming tenor of the response: though, today, by chance, the Gate sent over our cuttings file, and the sceptical and displeased voices do, on balance, slightly outweigh the mostly-positive and mostly-encouraging. Rightly, it's the actors and the designers who are most praised for their contributions: even those who deplored or denigrated the effects of the piece as a night in the theatre were reluctant (and, by most objective standards, unable) to criticise the immense technical skill of the performers and the imaginative flair of the physical production. On the upside, the show did elicit, towards the end of its run, perhaps the most thoughtful response that any piece of mine has yet received in (almost) print -- Alison Croggon's beautiful account over at Theatre Notes (how fortunate, by the way, to have ...Sisters playing while Alison was briefly in London: I wish that had been a more deliberate arrangement than it actually was) -- and a typically warm post from Andrew Haydon. (Yes, yes, it's true, I really am only linking to pieces in which I'm referred to as a god.)

Away from bloggery, I'm in a way quite pleased to report that, for the second project in a row (the first being the somewhat misused Hippo World Guest Book), the array of print reviews was besprinkled with every possible number of stars, from * (a palpably disgusted John Peter in the Sunday Times, consigning us with hilarious brio to "the dustbin of theatre history"), through ** (Dominic Maxwell in The Times, feebly fizzing away like yesterday's Lucozade, though I sympathize with his perspective in some limited respects), *** (an agreeably game Michael Coveney at WhatsOnStage.com, and Maxie Szalwinska -- whose extinct Webloge I still miss -- in the Metro), and **** (Lyn Gardner in the Guardian), to ***** (astonishingly, and very pleasingly, from Caroline McGinn in Time Out). -- Oh, wait, actually, top marks in Time Out these days is six stars (and, I believe, 198000 stars in their Harare edition), so we didn't quite make it all the way from the dustbin to the firmament after all. Which means I've something left to live for, I suppose. I dare say it's even more silly and degrading to be counting these stars than it is for their host journals to be issuing them, but it's a compact way of indicating how dividing this show has been. Do I like that? No, not as much as I like to say I do. I don't think I have, or have yet, at any rate, the robust self-confidence to be one of those Marmite directors who causes bar brawls and petulant disinheritings. I like my work to be liked, because one can smuggle rather more into work that people feel warmly about; if they really don't like it, one can often see signs of them being moved or disturbed or unsettling in ways that may ultimately be progressive, but in that case one is taking rather a long view, whereas I like to feel more directly and particularly consequential. Still, I couldn't disagree even with most of those who disliked ...Sisters; or, rather, that's all I could do -- to not agree, but amicably (on my part at least) and in a state of some relaxation. When I go to the theatre, I like to watch things like ...Sisters. There we are. The only comments that got my goat were those that underestimated the care, the precision, the deep thought and the genuine love for the original play that went into the piece, through all of us.

Of all the reviews, though, one, in particular, haunted me: which was Ian Shuttleworth's in the Financial Times. Shutters has been a good friend to Thompsons, and to me for that matter, and though I don't always agree with him he can always be taken seriously. (Except for his annoying tendency to describe exploratory or experimental procedures as "tinkering" or, less publicly, "fannying about" -- he's only teasing, sure, but it's still an odd pop-up... Well, whatever.) I'm sorry he didn't have a better time than the one he describes in his underwhelmed review -- in part, a particular casualty, I fear, of the necessity of coming too early in the run and only seeing the show once. (Inevitably, no critic, I think I'm right in saying, came back a second time; many audience members did -- and a third, and right up to six or seven times -- I'm not sure how many performances Harry Gilonis caught, but it was almost certainly more than I did; I'm hoping he and I will get to talk about it all one day.)




So, look. There is always something peculiarly and poignantly disquieting about being told that one could have been more bold, more radical (particularly by the sodding Financial Times... -- winking face, in lieu of as yet undeveloped stroke victim emoticon) -- though I'm not sure that would have made the piece more acceptable to more people, which is perhaps (quite rightly) not what Ian has in mind. But what's lodged in my head in relation to this is my initial response to his subdued critique: which was to think, yes, I probably could have been bolder and more high-end-experimental: but this was a co-production between the Gate and Headlong, and I'd have approached it differently had New Directions arisen from an association between the Gate and, say, Artsadmin. (Or Artangel. Or the Spill Festival. Or whoever.)

Now, on the surface, I think this probably looks like a reasonable riposte, and it's anyway true. And in so far as it describes a bit of speculative algebra with the brand profiles of some different organizations, it's a fun-enough game. (If you saw ...Sisters, play along: what do you think the Gate/Artangel version would have been? etc. etc.) But what really underlies that thought experiment is something that makes me feel very uneasy: namely, a level of assumption about audiences, and what they will and won't tolerate; and a further set of assumptions about the extent to which those tolerances should be taken into account in making a piece of work.

There are two things to say straight away before we get really down and dirty with this question. One of which is that most venues now collect substantial amounts of data about their 'audience' (oops, I've started with the scare quotes already, it's going to be a long night), so that they know roughly who they're talking to, and the social demographics that are represented (and by extension those that are perhaps underrepresented) in their catchment. I've no strong objection to that, except on vaguely paranoid grounds regarding the security of information and the constraining, inhibiting, reactionary uses to which such data are frequently put. If it helps a theatre -- as it surely would -- to know that their typical audience has quite a high level of disposable income, say, or that 80% of them on any given evening have probably never been to that venue before, then it would probably in some ways be better to know that than to not know it, and to use the information imaginatively. Which leads us to my second preliminary point: that it's worth making a real attempt to manage the expectations of audiences. We felt this very keenly with ...Sisters, for obvious reasons, though even by the end of the run we were still averaging a couple of walk-outs every night -- almost always in the first fifteen minutes -- which I largely regret. We'd done our best with that: but the front door of the Gate had a big poster on it with "***** Time Out" and "**** The Guardian" stuck there; should it also have had "* Sunday Times", to give a better sense of what might be in store?

Marketing lead-times also have their part to play in undermining the shaping of expectations, which is especially tricky with devised or unpredictable work; we were fine-tuning the wording of the flyer copy for ...Sisters during the tea-break of the first morning in rehearsal, before any of us really had a clue what we might end up making. There's something to be said for the kind of "If you liked that, you'll love this..." procedures that sometimes now crop up in season brochures -- not least as a vessel for a sustained engagement with a core audience: but it has to be handled with such delicacy, and can too often reduce the idea(s) of a show into a superficial, dubiously reassuring indicator of likeness. And perhaps most confusing of all is the advisory message. I wish I'd taken a photo of the board outside Speed Death of the Radiant Child that cautioned (something like): "Contains nudity, scenes of a sexual nature, very strong language, loud noises and smoking." It's really tricky: I do want audiences to know that stuff before they go in, because I'm not interested in making anybody more uncomfortable than they would like to be, and certainly not to the extent that they want to leave, or, worse, stay, trapped and slowly overheating; one thing I have never for a second wanted to do in any piece I've ever made is shock. (OK, with the exception of three dozen dead mice falling out of a schoolbag in a very early piece.) But equally I don't want anyone sitting there with a ticklist in their head, wondering if the obscene word they just heard constitutes "very strong language" or whether it's going to get worse, or feeling a bit cheated by the fleetingness of the nudity; and above all I hate the idea that the presence of those elements in a piece becomes bathetic, that those things can't then resonate beyond their signal occurrence, or participate in a larger argument that the whole piece is making. (Incidentally, can we have a set for sensitive avantgardistes, please? "Tonight's performance will include: a pretend dinner-party during which some people from north London who are pretending to be from south-east London will pretend to have an argument about immigration; an unerotic sex scene; a topical joke about Gordon Ramsay; and music by Underworld playing every so often while the furniture is being moved around.")




But I digress, innit.

What gave me pause about my reaction to Ian's remarks is that it clearly didn't quite tally with something I'd said to a friend during ...Sisters previews. She'd objected to the amount of information we were not making available to the show's audience, as regards how the actors were making decisions in the playing of the piece. (In fact there was very little information at all of the kind that I think she was thinking of, aside from certain frameworks and parameters that were either manifest or that it wouldn't have helped anybody to know about. Hers was a complaint that we heard frequently from other theatre-makers, and hardly at all from anyone else; I suppose if it's your job to know, or at least to figure out, how things are made, and you're good at your job, then when you can't figure out how something is made, it's automatic to assume that the makers are deliberately withholding or obscuring some magic bit of information that would make everything legible. If that's how it felt to you: sorry, but we really didn't have anything up our sleeves that we weren't already showing you. Everything else was made out of smart actors with virtuosic listening skills.)

Anyway, I said to my friend that I hadn't really been thinking much about the audience while we were making the show. Initially I think this sounded to her like "I don't care what the audience thinks", or even "I don't make work for the benefit of the audience": which is a million miles away from my actual attitude. I care deeply what the experience is of people who see my work. But we were talking at slightly cross purposes. (Well, she was very cross, in fact.) I explained to her that I hadn't been thinking about the audience during the making process because there's no audience to think about at that point. I don't know, I can't know, who will come and see any particular performance. I can't take them into account while I'm making, I said, because I don't know who they are.

While she began to point to various people around the bar and identify them to me -- that's your audience... -- my mind hopped briefly back to a Sunday afternoon a couple of weeks previously. I was supposed to be working on the sound editing for the show, but in fact I was too tired to concentrate and was basically feddling. (Feddling is an acronymic coinage I'm trying to introduce into the language, to describe the pointless, listless, lifeless activities that you fill your day with when, for reasons of inertia or hungoverness, you find yourself Failing Even to Do your Damn Laundry.) The internet being essentially a Feddler's Paradise -- with one small office in the corner where missiles are bought and sold -- I had somehow wound up at a site where you can watch the complete set of cinema trailers for THX, the digital audio system. (I love the cow one.) The tagline for these, you will recall, is "The audience is listening", which suddenly struck me as a weirdly paranoid memo. Ssssh, quit it: the audience is listening. They're out there, in the dark, unknowable, unreachable, ineffably powerful. Stop that larking around or they might hear you.




Do audiences feel that powerful? No, I don't think so: but it's not them we're talking about, it's not actual audiences listening to (or, if you prefer, actual spectators watching) a play or a movie or whatever. We're talking about the phantom audience that we, as makers, project, out of an admixture of experience, hearsay and blind anxiety. Almost all of us never really get to know a particular audience -- and even if we do, we may not have given ourselves the freedom to enter into a genuinely responsive, transformative dialogue with them; when we talk about "the audience", we're talking in a kind of generality that precisely matches the generality of our own makings. Our encounter with a particular audience in the present moments of theatre is by far the most evanescent element in the whole predicament of theatre -- whatever else might be the same tomorrow night, the audience definitely won't be. Away from that specific encounter, we are trapped into referring to a phantom audience we will never meet, or never meet again. They -- or, rather, it, because this ghostly audience contains little or nothing that is individually distinct; it is "the audience" that we worry about in advance -- Will they get that reference?; Will they like this character or laugh at that joke? Will they understand this plot point? Will they be hip to the subtext? -- or discuss when it's all over -- They were quiet tonight; They were fidgety; They didn't get that reference, did they? Not as good as last night.

This post-match analysis is not always mere reassurance and rubble-kicking. If a whole series of audiences is fidgety, night after night, at the same point, then maybe there's something that can be done about it. But the audience that went away last night having fidgeted are lost and gone forever, to be supplanted in the imagination by another looming shadowy mass. From the moment one performance ends, to the second the next one starts, there is no audience. Correction: there is no audience but "the audience" -- the audience that's listening not to your show but to your secrets, your hopes and fears for the work you make, from inside your cranium.

It more or less goes without saying that our attitude towards "the audience" is generally mollifying, with the occasional outburst of violent dismissal at the end of a long wet Wednesday afternoon in the rehearsal studio. ("If they don't get it, fuck 'em.") On the whole we want to please them, but they worry us. Almost always, it seems, they worry us for one simple reason: they are not -- and we mean this kindly, don't we? -- they are not quite as clever as we are. Not quite as bright or as sophisticated as us. Those persons reading this who have ever worked in a rehearsal room, please check your recollections. How many times have you heard somebody say "Do you think the audience will get it?" (Whatever reference or joke or narrative turn or symbol or gesture "it" is.) And contrariwise, how many times have you heard "Do you think the audience will be ahead of us here?" Yup. Our attitude to "the audience" is so often a kind of benign paternalism, powered by such stout determination not to make anyone feel dumb or excluded that it causes us to target our operations at a kind of bogus Joe Public figure, a regular user of whatever it is that's replaced the Clapham Omnibus as our yardstick for averageness. Post-show, of course, we've coloured in all these outlines: they were "an intelligent audience" if they seemed to like the show: and if they didn't, then they obviously didn't "get it" -- or even (it turns out) they "weren't our audience". I'm sure I've said this myself, actually. "The trouble is, they weren't really the audience for this show."




Further questions, obviously, abound. What does "getting it" actually mean? One of my favoured strategies for evading (or, ok, tackling, perhaps) the question of how smart "the audience" might be is to pitch the work at a level where nobody can be reasonably expected to comprehend everything about it. Speed Death of the Radiant Child certainly did that. Nobody, it seems to me, is degraded by being treated as more intelligent, literate, sharp, intellectually agile than they may actually be. So many times we met people after that show who said "I don't think I got it, but I loved it." To which our answer was -- of course -- "If you loved it, you got it." The corollary of this, obviously, is that the show has to teach you how to watch it. The best example of this I've ever seen -- in fact, possibly the origin of this plank in the platform on which I build my work -- is at the beginning of Forced Entertainment's Emmanuelle Enchanted, which has dozens of "characters" running around, identified only by the cardboard signs they carry that tell us who they "are". The piece itself is telling you, don't watch this expecting each of these actors to play a single role from beginning to end; don't expect that taking on a character is some kind of emotional investment for any of the actors; don't expect to be able to read or remember everything you've seen, even in these first few minutes. ...There are problems with this approach, and strategies that need careful consideration and refinement. One valid criticism of ...Sisters might be that the advice to try and see the piece more than once arises not simply out of our desire for everyone to experience how remarkably different any two performances of the piece actually are, but out of the fact that to a considerable extent, the first time you watch it, you're watching a tutorial. I'm not sure that's entirely true, but there's something in it. And certainly what we know to be true is that the piece itself has to do that work. A programme note, or a carefully crafted bit of copy, or half a dozen lines of preview in the Guardian Guide, won't do it: pas du tout.

So, sure, "getting it" might mean being shown how to connect with the piece, as well as what the content of the piece at a deeper level actually is. But there's also a problem with the "it" that is to be "got", which corresponds exactly to the fidelity of distinction and discrimination that, in the moment of performance, transforms "the audience" into an actual audience. If the piece is deliberately pitched at what is literally an incomprehensible level -- in other words, that no one attendee could practically be expected to notice, understand or "correctly" interpret everything that she is being shown -- then everybody's experience of the piece will be different. It hardly needs saying that this is anyway one of the basic tenets of theatre, and though a wilful obscurantism is to be deplored simply on the grounds of unattractiveness, there is much to be said for offsetting the maker's tendency towards clarity and singularity with a little deliberate "scuffing", as I call it. My early pieces such as The Consolations and the first (CPT) version of Napoleon in Exile were really crammed with this insistence on ambiguity and fragmentation and complexity and ciphers and concealment. -- I'm suddenly remembering a student show I directed where an important part of the text was trasmitted as Morse code, and a significant monologue delivered in Turkish. (By a Turkish actor, I should add; I was perverse, but not utterly perverse.) I probably wouldn't be quite so hardcore about it these days, but I retain a close interest in that kind of methodology, not out of a misguided fetishizing of abstruseness for its own sake, but because a theatre aesthetic that acknowledges and feeds off the built-in turbulence of the airspace between the performance signal and the individual response is, in the end, being more realistic about who, in that moment, we all are.

Probably nobody has thought more deeply and searchingly about the individually distinct experience within the theatre contract than Howard Barker, whose Arguments for a Theatre I've been revisiting over the past couple of days, knowing that I wanted to write this post, and also having been talking about Barker with a new friend, the actor Jonny Liron. Though Barker is often thrilling, I find I can't quite recognize my own aspirations in his analysis of the audience as, essentially, a group of individuals who become more stupefied the more they long for some kind of collective understanding or experience. I'm absolutely with him on the crucial importance of the individual's interpretive rights; but I think he too quickly elides the sense of collective with the potential tyranny of the unified group. Perhaps sometimes it's the manifestation of theatre-conventional behaviour, rather than the collective experience itself, that seems stultified. I'll shortly be posting here (what I think is) a fascinating interview with the live artist Rajni Shah, and it's interesting to hear her complaining about the "fake balm" of applause at the end of a performance, while addressing much of her work and thinking to the individual's experience of themselves within a group as an integral part of the theatre situation. For all Barker's grandiose desolation and the oddly pristine machismo of his writing, there is something deeply honest and troubling about his will to isolate the individual within the audience (though I suspect in a way it's, again, a reflection of his own sense of isolation): but in the end I have to reject it because we want theatre to do different things. I want people to leave my pieces having reminded themselves that they have more in common with people they don't know than perhaps they might have felt they did when they came in: or, at least, that they are more implicated, more entwined, in the lives of others than they can normally bear to acknowledge. With the greatest respect to Howard Barker, the last thing we need theatre to do is deliver us more privacy and more seclusion; and in fading light he now somewhat resembles an (attractively) elitist Anthony Neilson, in that he seems to want to do something to an audience, not with them.

This certainly isn't the first time that this blog, or others close to it, has ventilated thoughts of this kind about how the contrary (though not contradictory) tendencies towards individuality and collectivity within an audience can be reconciled and set, perhaps dialectically, to work. A crucial question is the ordering of an audience's conscious experience of these two states. It's becoming increasingly common, for example, for theatre or performance to deliver a very individualising experience, which does not disallow or inhibit a collective experience, but defers it. The Masque of the Red Death is an obvious example: everyone follows their own journey through it, in which other individuals on other journeys are observed but remote; and then, at the end, there's the collective payload of shared accounts and swapped recollections, and a tantalising, perhaps slightly frustrating, sensation of the impossibility of any two spectators, be they close friends or complete strangers, having seen the "same" show. (Presumably something not dissimilar happened a bit with ...Sisters, though I must say that wasn't one of the effects I was particularly interested in.) Or likewise Ontroerend Goed's The Smile Off Your Face, though that's experienced alone and those who've been through it become sort of co-conspirators in preserving the elements of surprise and not-knowing for those who haven't: which I suppose is at least a partial redistribution of authorial power.

For my own part, I've tended to want to structure the reception of my work (in so far as one ever can) kind of the opposite way around to that Punchdrunk model. My hope is that the collective experience -- that is to say, the individual's experience of herself in a collective situation -- is stronger first; but that the piece itself, whatever it is, is full enough of complexity and ambiguity that it will not resolve itself within that individual's experience until, perhaps, some days after she's seen it. At that point (in theory) her need to contact or access the collective element of that experience so as to confirm or embed that resolution, whatever it may be, is both thwarted and piqued by the deconvening of the audience that she initially experienced herself within, and ends up being projected more generally as a desire for collective contact, in which the specifics of the piece are not pertinent but the sense of its tonal language certainly is. Written down so schematically, this all seems on the chilly edge of speciousness: which is why, I suppose, these things don't get written down on the whole. But I do think versions of this mini-narrative happen all the time to people who see my work (and of course many other people's); and the bottom line is easy enough. The incompleteness and partiality that I prefer my work to exhibit (though it doesn't always, and certainly not always to the degree that I'd like) will not be resolved by chatting to other people in the bar afterwards. There's nothing wrong with such conversations but my hope is that they're preparatory. They're preliminary to the making-work that lies ahead, and not a line drawn underneath that small proportion of the work that happens for an hour or two in the theatre space itself. When I imply that I want to do something with rather than to an audience, this is largely what I mean.




But the kind of collective experience that is anyway possible for any group of individuals in the turbulent zone of theatre feels more and more difficult to conceive. (Some of the site-responsive and game-based work that's doing so well at the moment has, I guess, this problem in its sights: though the least thought-through examples of that work merely re-establish the power structures of more-or-less conventional theatre in other venues, which obviously gets us nowhere.) What social cohesion we now start with, out of which any particular audience might be drawn, is a product of flux and recreational blur and a kind of hands-off tolerance, rather than an armature of shared values and grander narratives: and so, when there are seventy or several hundred people in a room together, watching the same piece of theatre, it's impossible to know in what ways other than physically this single room is being collectively occupied, and difficult and improper to assume anything about that.

Possibly you will remember the characteristically disgusting hatchet job the Evening Standard turned in a few weeks ago when David Farr's startlingly early departure from the Lyric Hammersmith was announced: an unnamed "theatre-world observer" was quoted as saying: "He hasn’t been the success some people hoped he might be. [...] His productions were full of political ideology but paid rather less attention to that old-fashioned virtue called entertaining the audience." One only needs to read this brace of sentences a couple of times before the full and various magnificence of its stupidity starts to send shivers down the spine: almost everything about it is so concertedly moronic, it's hard to believe the "theatre-world observer" in question isn't in fact Rod Liddle. (And no I'm not, particularly, a David Farr fan-boy, however much the binarists might picture us snuggling; I'm sorry to see him leave the Lyric so soon, but I don't especially have the hots for him or his work: so my objection to the statement above is not partisan, but merely an expression of concern at the terrible depths of grotesquerie to which someone associated with the "theatre world" can apparently sink and still be considered an "observer"...)

Anyway, my reason for dredging up this ghastliness is that, actually, I was struck by the phrase "that old-fashioned virtue called entertaining the audience". Let's set aside the question of whether 'virtues' are called anything; perhaps our charmless friend was thinking of "That Ole Devil Called Love". But the more one thinks about this charge, the more interesting it becomes. Do we, as theatre makers, generally now set out to entertain? As I've said here before, the radical connotations of 'entertain' are about seeking to hold a group of people together in one place. One can signal a desire to entertain -- think (fleetingly, dears, fleetingly) of Robbie Williams; but to achieve entertainment as an actual outcome in those terms is now rare indeed. We are too disparate to be held together in that way, for the most part, and too used to our own individuality. It is perhaps hair-splitting to suggest that any group of people thus entertained should be taken to be "an audience" rather than "the audience": but we've already seen how "the audience", qua shadowy mass, simply can't be contacted in that way. Certainly the concept of "the audience" in the way that our anonymous spokesperson is employing it must surely be an "old-fashioned" notion in itself. In that context, what is, or might be, virtuous about entertainment?




This is not a facetious question and it's not a bad one for our Farr-bashing compadre to have inadvertently raised. We might have a hard time thinking about the virtues of entertainment, but it often seems at the moment that most of our attention is trained on questions of how an individual audience member's experience of togetherness can be activated so as to produce some sensation or insight both in them and in the maker that is certainly taken to contain or imply an ethical dimension. There are a lot more words in that description than there are in the bald refrain "Let Me Entertain You", sure: but then there are, in a very particular sense, many more people in the audience. Which is to say that our efforts to preserve the distinguished individual within "the [broad general] audience" are now a fundamental part of our contract with that audience, and that perhaps the task we face, instead of a generalized notion of "entertainment", is the much more delicate challenge of holding the experience exactly at the biting point between individual and collective, so that each can be readily, in an instant, invoked in the service of the other.

A brilliant example of this in performance (I mean of course that they are brilliant; it's a good example to have chosen, but not that good) is Goat Island's The Lastmaker, which I saw at BAC a few weeks ago. If you've never seen Goat Island, kick yourself as hard as you can manage, because you now never will: this was their last show together, and (if their web site is to be believed) they performed it for the very last time a couple of weeks ago in Croatia. As with most if not all of their performances, The Lastmaker brings together a number of disparate strands of forms and materials: there is quite a lot of dance, though none of them are dancers exactly, and it seems that the sequences may be developed out of individual images, or encodings in movement of other kinds of text perhaps; performer Mark Jeffery does Larry Grayson doing St Francis of Assisi, presumably transcribed from videotape -- a lift from popular culture, but hardly a mass populist reference, particularly in Croatia; the words of a wonderful poem about Robert Bresson drift up, and only later do I track them down to the late American poet Robert Creeley; clockwork tweetybirds sing, Karen Christopher channels Lenny Bruce, and a model of the Hagia Sophia is assembled. It would be, yes, reasonable to say that the lines of the work defy precis.

The non-assertion of the connections between these diverse elements and types of presentation is an important part of Goat Island's communal signature -- I mean their signature as a group, but also their signature as artists inciting communally-produced attentions. Their quite severe, or at any rate unsentimental, attachment to formally and architecturally driven manufactures, vestiges of which lend the presented piece a curiously robust kind of structural integrity, means that the difference between these various elements doesn't usually get glossed by lazy critics as "random". (Please, if you're someone who's ever used the word "random" in critical anger, would you now take a moment to consider, a) whether what you were actually trying to say was that you were unable to discern the superficial connections between elements in a piece, and b) whether you're absolutely sure it's the job of the makers of a piece to make any such connections clearly apparent to you, and whether only the connections thus revealed should be taken into account when attempting a critique of a work, and finally c) in the unlikely event that any elements of a piece were selected purely and literally at random, why is that anyway a contemptible decision for the makers to have taken? -- No, no, I'm fine, I'm just interested...)




Anyway: something that particularly struck me in watching The Lastmaker was how the modular construction of the piece -- these different bits of material do not so much flow into each other as sit next to each other, blockily, or are perhaps overlaid, stackily -- in a funny way resembles the procedures of a mainstream variety show: a kind of "old-fashioned" entertainment that even the crustiest of bileful "theatre-world observers" would hesitate to invoke as a template. But it's true: if you go and see Goat Island, you probably get a song, you certainly get some dancing, you get some stand-up (by hook or by crook), you get novelty acts of various stripes; you spend some time watching soloists, and some time watching a chorus, and some time watching a double-act, and some time watching the whole group working as a single unit. And all of these different kinds of presentation sit alongside each other like carriages in a long train, and you watch them go past, and you think what you think, and you feel what you feel. I don't know, but I suspect that, despite the arguable obscurity of some of their scoring, no one ever comes out of a Goat Island show complaining about its elitism or saying that it went over their heads. Again, partly it's that they tell you how to watch the piece as it's going along, and they don't apologize, and, most importantly, they don't gloss anything to make it easier, so you never think of it as having been "difficult". The Lastmaker feels like a plausible kind of entertainment for a contemporary audience: it speaks to the individual, but what it speaks to her about is the desire to connect (and to act in concert) with others; it treats "the audience" as exactly as intelligent as the piece is, and as exactly as present; it uses a number of strategies (not least repetition) to help you see what's going on; and it's structured so that if you don't like what you're watching at any one moment, in five or ten minutes' time you'll almost certainly be watching something very different -- so you may feel alienated at moments, but you'll never switch off or get your coat.

I don't think I'm saying that Goat Island represent, in this respect, the absolute apogee of sophistication as regards the cogency of their relationship with their audiences. There are countless other models that feel efficacious in entirely different ways. Theatrewise, I turn back (yet again) to thinking about Rabbit's Gathering, where the audience is essentially left alone to make and enact a remotely authored piece, using materials and instructions left in the space and interventions prearranged by the meta-makers; or Blast Theory's Stampede, a piece which impressed its concerns about crowd control and individual liberties directly onto the spatial experience of its participating audience. Or, away (just a little way) from theatre, I think about the first time I saw Phil Kay doing stand-up, in a tiny room in Edinburgh in 1994 (wherein he attempted to hang from the ceiling by attaching his beard to it with drawing pins), and my excitement, even then, at the totally direct and infintely pliable relationship he was able to have with his audience -- none of the remoteness or shadowiness that most theatre confers, inadvertently or otherwise; and I think of some of the times I've seen Phil Kay since then, watching him "lose" rooms and then find them again (or not) -- I wonder how much that has to do with the impossibility of entertainment now on the terms that we inherited. Or I think about things I've done in the last couple of weeks, since I started chewing more insistently on these audience-related questions: seeing My Bloody Valentine at the Roundhouse; or watching (on tv) Nadal vs Federer at Wimbledon; or having an incredible meal at the (other) Gate; or being genuinely excited by a couple of exceptionally stimulating ongoing email exchanges about, oh, yknow, art and life and stuff. All of these experiences, each wonderful in its own way, require of me a different kind of engagement and participation as a member of an audience; to analyse these relationships would quadruple the length of this already gigantic post, so I won't: but you can, right? Or supply your own experiences to fit. The point I'm making is, there seem to be as many ways of being in an audience as there are ways of making work: and the adaptivity of individuals to all these different kinds of attentive (or, at least, attending) relationships surely underlines my central point, which is that, far from allowing fear of a remote and incomprehensible abstraction which we call "the audience" to constrain and inhibit our movements, we can -- I certainly could -- think more imaginatively about ways to bring ourselves into relation with particular audiences, who will actually come with us into entirely new territories (or, for that matter, perfectly old but genuinely functional territories) if we ask them to, provided we give them what they actually need in order to stay there with us: which is a question we can, and must, answer for ourselves, rather than continually referring it back to them: because, firstly, they don't know, they can't yet know, what those needs are; and secondly, because they're not yet there to ask.

Then again, this question of what an audience knows, of what its competences are, should not merely be brushed aside on the basis that we can give it all we think it needs. No audience is a blank slate, and even at the far horizons of whatever outreach project you care to name, those millions who never go to see theatre have as complex and overdetermined a sense of what theatre is and might be as do those who go twice a week. As I think I've said before here, and certainly bawled into many a local ear in the hubbub around last orders being called, the question of participation -- and, for that matter, of access -- has to be less glibly and less superficially addressed, if we're to have a strong chance of working with an audience rather than for them or, as is quite often the case, basically just near them. A large part of what I mean when I say "less superficially" is that quite a lot of work at the moment is placing performers and audience in different spatial relationships, or is shaping the patterns of audience reception in innovative ways, and none of that is in itself unhealthy: but a lot of it seems to be not much more than a spring-cleaning rearrangement of the furniture in the room, when a much deeper inquiry is required into the ways in which work can be shared, or somehow mutually held. (In a sense, this, now, is exactly the agenda for entertainment: for the room to be held together by all present, in a way that seems in some ways even more old-fashioned than the Rabid Anti-Farr would describe: it recalls the model of campfire stories or singing carols round the piano, doesn't it?)

In particular I'd like it if there was a deeper appreciation -- among makers but also among audiences themselves -- of what it means to attend (and attend to) a theatre event, of the kind of participation it is simply to pay attention to what is happening around you. I'm strongly drawn to Paul Goodman's words in his indispensible essay 'Art of the Theatre': "Artaud [...] wants the play to come out and do something to the watchers, like a blow or like psychotherapy. But I'd rather have the watchers moved by what they are doing -- watching." It's the responsibility of theatre makers to present work that promotes this level of attentiveness, that suffuses its detail and complexity with the radiance of these values and with the commitments that underlie them, however we may choose to describe those. An audience which understands its role in these terms, and which is given what it needs in order to enact those responsibilities, is not merely connected to the work, but is holding it from within.




Having pondered the Utah Phillips quote in my last post, in which he reminds one particular folk club audience that: "You are ostensibly the folk, n'est-ce pas? That means we own this song together, right? We have thereby incurred certain social obligations which we will faithfully discharge, right?", I went back one afternoon to what is probably my all-time favourite album, and certainly the one that I would take to a desert island, forsaking all others: Pete Seeger's Sing-A-Long at the Sanders Theatre, 1980. The story behind the recording is simple: Seeger, already by then just into his 60s (and, as I write, 89 years old and still, evidently, going pretty strong, all things considered), wished to document, before he got any older, his standard live show, a two-hour performance of exemplary singing, musicianship and storytelling, in which, right from the start, the audience is encouraged to sing along with him; in truth, on this night at least they don't need much encouragement: even Seeger himself seems a little taken aback when he remarks on how, by the second verse of his second song, they're already singing in exquisite two-part harmony.

Now, this is 1980, not 1940, and for all I know it still happens nightly in folk clubs all over the place; and the Sanders Theatre is an auditorium on the campus of Harvard University, so this is an audience of mostly students, not just grizzled old fellow travellers of Seeger's vintage; and so this recording feels to me not like some historical document but like a memorandum from a past that's as recent as The Jam and the St Paul's riots. And what it presents is the sound of an audience with whom an extraordinarily intimate kind of contact can be made -- not only does Seeger have apparently unconstrained access to them, but so do I -- and that kind of connection is possible not least because these people know that they are "the folk" and they deeply comprehend their "social obligations", and the pleasure that those obligations bring. Even if they don't know the words to the songs, they're at home in the idiom and they're ready to listen and learn and, to borrow Ani Difranco's delicious phrase, to open their faces up and sing. It is an unbelievably moving record, and its plangent simplicity disguises how this performer/audience relationship is in so many ways as potentially fraught and complex as anything you'll ever get at the theatre.

The only experience I've ever had anywhere near this sense of an audience's "ownership" of its own authority has been in the apparently (but perhaps not actually) less demotic context of the experimental poetry scene in London and certain other UK hotspots. Admittedly it's a scene from which, for the moment, I feel quite estranged (for reasons that are essentially personal rather than structural): but when it works, there's something very interesting about it. It's actually not as exclusive as those outside it may think, but its underwriting assumption, quite unlike the theatre scene's, is that, as an audience member, you have a certain amount to do yourself, a certain element of participation that is far less craven than that required of the relatively infantilised theatre crowd. You'd want to find out a little about the poets you're going to hear read in an evening, you'd want to familiarise yourself with some of their work beforehand. You'd have a sense of what the hot topics and contentious questions are that are animating that microcommunity, the immediate aesthetic context out of which these poets are writing. You'd know something of the history of this strain of literary endeavour. In other words, you'd do as much as possible to strengthen your capacity for helping to hold the work where it is. And what you get out of all that effort is not much more or less than the knowledge that your attention is as valuable as you make it in that small and marginal economy.

Perhaps you're disturbed by the sound of my hair-shirt rustling in this evening's breeze. I am making attendance at an artistic event sound more like going to a hustings than plopping yourself down in front of an instalment of Heroes. Well, perhaps so. I'm just aware that I may now be in a pickle, having argued all these years for a theatre in which the balance of power (between makers/performers and audience) is as equitable as possible; that artists must start, as far as possible, by relinquishing as much of their power as they can, and taking only what is absolutely necessary in order to achieve the kind of contact with their audience that they want to initiate. I begin to suspect, however, particularly in the light of our experience with ...Sisters and the conversations that arose around it, that authorial power merely gets re-encoded as a kind of virtuosity, where it's even less legible than it is in any conventional set-up where any audience member gets to buy a copy of the play-text on the way in to the theatre. So if our authority as makers can't be dispelled, so as to level out the playing field, perhaps we need to do a better job of empowering audiences: not by giving them meaningless roaming rights or feedback forms, but by talking up to them, by asking more of them, by making their engagement with theatre more meaningful to them, by treating their attentiveness with the care it deserves and requiring that they do likewise.

I also wonder whether the best first step in initiating that reassessment would be to abolish admission charges. I mean, obviously, this won't happen, but... Isn't one of the fundamental problems with this whole relationship its attachment to an entirely misleading system of commodity trading? Perhaps it's not necessary to go the whole hog. You'd pay a fiver, maybe, to go and see a couple of poets at one of the regular reading experimentally-focused series; but you're not expecting to swap that money for five pounds' worth of poetry, in the way that I found myself humming to myself about whether Lepage's Lipsynch really is worth £48 (...yeah, of course it is), or, for that matter, whether ...Sisters was "worth" a whopping £16. The poetry model is: this is what you pay because you're interested. Because you want a place in that conversation, in that world of ideas. A fiver to see a couple of carcrash readings by novice poets who nonetheless may eventually develop into exciting writers, is no better or worse "value for money" than seeing two top-flight veterans. This is the basis, after all, on which Jerome Bel refuses to refund money to those who walk out of his shows: the work is experimental, and you pay to be present in the room when the experiment happens -- there's no ulterior guarantee. Of course, the levels of public subsidy even in the upstream theatre sector massively outweigh those on the fugitive poetry circuit, which (like much of the theatrical fringe, to be fair) is subsidised mostly by those making the work -- which is not an ideal system, but it has ideals in it. And, no, paying taxes is not like buying a quarter of humbugs (not that one can do that anyway, damn you metric monkey europigdogs etc etc.), but nor will we, realistically, extricate ourselves from "value for money" questions -- though we may want to go back to the drawing board when it comes to describing how we understand and measure value. So, anyway, fair enough, it's a pipe dream, probably. But if we were, more often than not, giving our work away, wouldn't we dispel not only an audience's concern for bang-for-buck exchange rates, but also, perhaps almost completely, our confection of "the audience" we never meet? Wouldn't that panic-fuelled blob of general anxiety simply get exploded? Paying for theatre is like paying for sex: it doesn't make the transaction simpler and more transparent, though it may seem that it does; it merely suppresses a welter of complexity and contingency that is, at least, totally appropriate to the undertaking, and perhaps one of its most meaningful components. I think of Paul Goodman's early association with the Living Theater, whose mission statement to this day begins with this aspiration: "To call into question / who we are to each other / in the social environment of the theater." This is still the best encapsulation I know of what I'm trying to do with my work; but how can its ambition be genuinely realized when among the very first things we are to each other is, let's see, sixteen quid?




These are huge questions, and perhaps the best we can do for the moment is keep muddling through, finding ways to examine and re-shape our sense of who we are to each other, whilst juggling a hundred other pressures. Perhaps I'm left feeling that we maybe know each other a little too well if anything: perhaps the best of us is in fleeting glances and harried speculations and sweetie-papers rustling in the dark. Perhaps if we knew better what we're really like and what our relations are really made out of, we couldn't stand to be around each other any more. If it's a choice between the bogey-audience that we're advised to suppose is none too bright, and not being able to think about "the audience" at all, perhaps I'm right to prefer the latter, perhaps I'm wrong. We none of us (I think) want to disregard our audiences in the way that my friend thought I might have meant. We all want to know when we've touched people: and there's a serviceable word for people who are only interested in touching themselves. But perhaps a general sense of "the audience" is the most reliable, the least evasive, benchmark that we have, and all this preceding verbiage is an unnecessary, if eye-catching, arc of piss in the wind.

Perhaps, perhaps. ...And then Pete Seeger, still playing in the background as I write this, reaches the point in his set where he sings "The Water is Wide" -- and at least then I know there's more heart than hair-shirt in this longing of mine to make the right, the bravest, contract with an audience; because first he sings the opening verse of this age-old Scottish folksong:

The water is wide: I cannot cross o'er
And neither have I wings to fly.
Give me a boat that can carry two,
And both shall row, my love and I.

and then he introduces the song, like this:

"When my sister was going to Radcliff in the mid 50s, I visited Cambridge, and I learned this song from her. I'd seen it in a book and I'd passed it by; I said, hm, another sentimental song.

It means an awful lot to me now, because I keep thinking of the ocean of misunderstanding between human beings. And we can sing all sorts of militant songs, but if we can't bridge that ocean of misunderstanding we're not going to get this world together.

Now even if you've never heard this song, you can hum along with it. It's a nice song to harmonize on. Literally any note works, I've found. ...I think they call it tone clusters."

And they do harmonize, God love them, all eight hundred of them in the audience one night in January 1980 at the Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. All of them opening their faces up to sing.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

dear Chris
your blog is an absolute joy to read
thank you!

Ian Shuttleworth said...

Chris, I'm honoured and humbled to have played a part in occasioning such a range of thoughts and considerations from you.

I wouldn't necessarily say I was underwhelmed by ...sisters, just sort of whelmed. It is true, though, that I felt a tinge (yes, a tinge, not a twinge, I'm being synaesthetic) of disappointment at being so able to follow it; and I was trying to judge not just from my own standpoint as someone who's seen Ekaterinburgsful of Sisters already, but also from that of "the" audience.

That distinction between the general-theoretical and the event-specific audience, by the way, has given me a lovely lot to mull over, especially after my previous contributions here about the essence of the theatrical experience as being communal more than individual. It strikes me as being similar to the one I face as a reviewer between "the" readership I write for and that readership composed of the people who actually read a given piece; and that in itself gives me further food for thought, at each end of the process of reviewing, as it were.

Another thing you say, though, twitches my antennae, which is that thing about the piece being not just friendly towards but almost designed towards repeat visits. Now, it seems to me that live performance in any medium is essentially a one-shot deal. If you CAN get more by a repeat visit, fine, but if it becomes NECESSARY for a satisfactorily complete realisation of the experience, then the piece itself is as deficient as if it needed programme notes to explain it rather than actually doing all (its side of) the work itself. It's not, after all, a legitimate artistic expectation for someone to go out and buy the deluxe edition of Back In Black for the full Winehouse experience once they've already shelled out for the standard edition; this is surely so much more the case with art which finds its essence in an event rather than an artefact.

This isn't, by the way, any kind of argument against pitching work high; rather, it's a counsel of stoicism to accept incompleteness of "getting it" on a one-time basis rather than entertain the ideal of asymptotic approach through repeated iteration. (I'm sorry, my phrasing's all over the place here.)

But your ideas about the theatrical relationship are fascinating as ever... not least to see them change and develop... which is one way in which a relationship with a person is not the same as a relationship with a performance...

And two minor things: one, that Farr article originated within Northcliffe House, so I'd lay a few quid that that unnamed observer it quotes is Quentin Letts; and two, er, actually, is something I've just checked and was wrong about - The Water Is Wide isn't the same song as Carrickfergus at all. As you were.

Phil Porter said...

I enjoyed reading that. It was massive. And I felt a bit moved in the bit about reviews that underestimate the care put in by all getting your goat.

I have a particular fascination for reviews that make bold inferences about the personality of the artist based on the work. When I wrote my first play, a critic said I was clever, "but not as clever as he thinks he is". I love that.

Erik Sherman said...

>> Almost always, it seems, they worry us for one simple reason: they are not -- and we mean this kindly, don't we? -- they are not quite as clever as we are. Not quite as bright or as sophisticated as us. <<

I understand the sense, but I wonder whether the paternalistic tone is due to fear and uncertainty. "That line was screamingly funny to the audience last night, but tonight no one batted an eye."

The line didn't change, and maybe the delivery didn't change, but the reaction did. Or maybe it was the delivery. Did I ruin the line? Did someone else? Or is the audience just ... different?

The company has had weeks (hopefully) to become familiar with the nuances of the play, any subtleties of language and structure. It may be that questioning whether the audience is "smart" enough to get the play is realistic - and if the director and cast struggled with understanding the work, there may be a tacit admission that they also would not constitute a "smart enough" audience, as I agree that you can only assume that someone will see a production once.

Chris said...

Ian: Thanks a lot for the response. In the first part, as regards being bolder and going further and alleviating your tinge, I realise that the other factor that one would wish to be taken into account alongside the barely-conscious targeting towards a particular audience is the making time that we had. The rehearsal time on ...Sisters was five weeks, which is not bad at all in the present climate, but the resultant piece inevitably reflected those working dimensions simply in terms of where the edge of unknowing was for the actors: which is why the piece improved over the course of its run to the extent that it did, i.e. as if it were still in rehearsal -- which in a sense it was. Of course every director and every cast can say the same thing -- if we'd had more time... -- and it's right that they feel that, but it feels not unreasonable to suppose that it was more, and more tellingly, the case for us than for most. It's a very minor point and I don't know why I'm labouring it like this. But, yeah, given God in Ruins-scale development time, I think we would have been able to get to a place where we were both bolder aesthetically and more available to that subset of the audience who were starting at the ground floor and felt anxious about it.

You are of course basically right about it being at best excessive, and at worst defeating all-round, to require a second visit to a piece before it's fully delivered, and I'll have to keep my eye on that tendency in my work, which is either getting stronger or I'm just becoming more aware of it.

I would say, though, that I never really think of them as "repeat visits", and certainly not in relation to ...Sisters. Which is to say that I slightly disagree about the live experience being a "one-shot deal". What there is in that idea that I fully endorse, it could go without saying, is that the live experience is unique and unrepeatable and unrecoverable and etc etc, but this doesn't necessarily imply that one shot is all it takes to achieve a dimensionalized understanding of a production. Wow, yes, that's a yucky word, but you see what I mean: that in seeing something like ...Sisters twice, you see a somewhat different rendering the second time and this builds a kind of stereoscopic image, a view of the piece that can contain a different kind of depth. (Perhaps actually it's about building up a 4-D rather than 3-D picture.)

Certainly to require this is impractical and to assume its viability as an m.o. would be daft. But I'm not sure it's that different to -- for example -- being able to see any of the three parts of Lipsynch individually or watching the whole thing in one day. Yes, you can watch one part of it, and it will be a rich experience, presumably, and stand alone quite satisfactorily, presumably; but if you're willing to make the commitment to the whole nine yards, you have a much more dimensionalized sense of Lepage's vision for that work. Now, I'm not really comparing ...Sisters to the prospect of Lipsynch in any way, and it may be a slightly duff analogue: but I always thought of a second visit to ...Sisters in that way, I guess -- not as "another chance to see", or as a re-delivery of the same stuff in new packaging with a bit of added fan-boy frisson a la Back in Black, but as seeing two parts of -- well, not a trilogy, obviously, but a n-logy, where n is howevermany parts you decide the thing has.

But I'm describing how I was thinking about it at the time; I agree that coming to think of a first viewing as a tutorial rather blows the bloody doors off my argument -- though, as I say in the post, I'm not quite sure that's right either anyway.

You are, anyway, the first person in the history of Communicable Desire to use the word "asymptotic". Please imagine me buying you a drink. xx


Phil Porter: Hi -- nice to see you pop up here! That little sliver of critical slap-down you quoted made me shudder: such a rich and complicated and self-betraying thing for someone to write -- and so British! It's the grisly sound of someone trying to say, or rather to not say, "He may be clever but I am cleverer" in such a way as to say about himself "It is good to be clever" while saying about you "Being clever is slightly disgusting". And of course these are the three planes in relation to which all British theatre still gets assessed...


Erik Sherman: Thanks for your thoughts. I think the situation is far more fraught than the one you describe, as I tried to sketch out in my post -- you seem to be assuming a relationship with a much more stable "play" than the kinds of constructions I work with, so the levels of complexity and contingency are more demanding from my perspective. (And if it really is touch and go as to whether the kind of play you're thinking of may or may not contain "any subtleties of language and structure" then I think I'm going to prefer the headaches over the stability.)

I also don't think it's necessarily the case that, having struggled with a difficult piece, a company shouldn't assume that an audience can, or at least can be asked to, sit with a similar level of difficulty and struggle. My inference from what you seem to be saying is that, though the company may do the right thing in assuming that its audiences will be roughly as smart as they themselves are, they will need to adapt the pitching of the work so that the difficulty and struggle that they have experienced is tuned out of the audience's experience: which seems a pity to me. But again, you're talking about a kind of play that I don't usually work with and that certainly isn't my area of expertise, so I may be talking rot in relation to the kind of world that the majority of theatre folks inhabit.