Friday, January 09, 2009

Of late

Lots of little bits and bobs to try and thread together as quickly as possible today, so please forgive any infelicities of thought or expression that follow. It's five in the afternoon as I embark on this post and the working day is not even, really, begun. I'm still writing King Pelican, which goes into rehearsal in only a little over three weeks: and quite big bits of my time between now and then will be taken up with Wound Man and Shirley; with a short residency at the Judith E. Wilson studio in Cambridge; and with such whirling ceilidhs of admin pish as the annual tax return (lest Moira Stuart stage a sit-in in our understairs cupboard) and renewing my passport and suchlike. So in fact I have just a few days in which to finish probably the most complicated and challenging script I've ever tried to write -- challenging not least because, unlike Speed Death..., this one can't wear its complexity on its sleeve. It's daunting, exciting, but mostly frustrating: principally because it takes me all day to get myself into the headspace where I can actually do the writing. Often I don't start till midnight, and find I have to hit the sack at three. So in one sense it's not a long working day; but of course the head's buzzing from the moment I wake up. Anyway, it's not like I have a choice about finishing it -- tickets are already on sale. So, we'll get there. The cast is two thirds in place and next week will be complete; and a week today the design team and I pile down to Plymouth to introduce the brilliant folks there to the project. Everything about this feels great except the twelve hours of dread that precede each night's three measly hours of writing.

I felt compelled to throw up a quick post here not least because I've been sitting for the last few days with an interesting and instructive tension. Tomorrow the fourth annual Devoted & Disgruntled event begins in Bethnal Green. For those who don't know, this is a gathering of theatre folks, hosted by Improbable and designed around Open Space technology to facilitate what promises to be a fascinating assortment of hopefully fruitful conversations around different aspects (determined by attendees) of our contemporary theatre culture. Devoted & Disgruntled has quickly become established as perhaps the most significant backstage event in the theatre calendar, and colleagues speak warmly of it. I've never been to one before -- I abhor large gatherings as utterly and completely as did my current subject Edward Lear, who once remarked: "At the very door of St Peter of the Keys, I shall stipulate that I will only go into Heaven at all on condition that I am never in a room with more than 10 people." But D&D cunningly promotes itself as a safe haven for refuseniks like me, as the club for all those who would never dream of belonging to a club that would consent to admit them as members. And among 2009's resolutions -- most of which already lie in such tattered disarray around me I could easily believe I'd wandered into the closing stages of a Sarah Kane play -- is the determination to show up more. Not merely to turn up -- to things, to shows, to the pub, whatever...; but to show up, in the West Wing sense.

However there is of course also tomorrow a demonstration in London organized by the Stop the War Coalition in opposition to the incomprehensible atrocities currently being visited on Gaza, and like anyone with a third of a conscience I very much want to stand alongside my fellow citizens and be counted. (That is, of course, counted as a fifth of a person by the police and as one-and-a-half people by the organizers.) One friend had suggested nipping out of D&D to join the march on the Israeli embassy for a while and then nipping back again: but that doesn't look like a feasible option to me. So I genuinely feel torn about where my responsibilities place me tomorrow. I suspect I'll follow the utilitarian course: on balance, I can do more good, have more of an impact, by engaging as closely as possible with D&D, and perhaps by raising exactly this point -- which I'm sure others will also be keen to do. I want, I need, and above all I believe in, an artistic practice that does not feel discontinuous with the actions of those who will demonstrate tomorrow: and there's (at the risk of overstating my case) a kind of sorrow produced by this tension, a realization that, for all my commitment to a theatre that's passionately and intrinsically politically motivated, I fear that the conversation that the relatively little community at D&D will be having with itself tomorrow may feel trivial and self-indulgent at a time like this. But, I guess, that's the point: the current situation in the Middle East is hardly anomalous, for all its grievous pitch in the last few days; it's always a time like this, and the worst thing about contemporary theatre is exactly how insulated and disconnected it feels in relation to these times. Put like that, I guess it's obvious that the best use of my voice is making that case where it needs to be heard. Even so, it's impossible to be sure that this isn't purest self-delusion. I suppose it all comes back to how I always feel when people deride the idea that theatre can (meaningfully) change the world. Not all the theatre has been made yet, and not all the results are in.

I wonder where Harold Pinter would be, given the same conundrum. (Of course he's in the enviable position of being able to look down on both events at the same time from his present vantage: though I dare say, like Lear, he probably arrived at the pearly gates with a considerable list of preconditions.) It would, anyway, be remiss not to mention in passing, at least, Pinter's death while this blog was on its Christmas vacation: and though it tended unwelcomely to overshadow the attention due to a host of other various radical voices we lost in the space of a fortnight or so -- Davey Graham, Adrian Mitchell, Eartha Kitt, and, slightly earlier, George Brecht -- it was satisfying in a way to have Harold hog the headlines for a day or two, nicking the festive limelight from such bourgeois lickspittles as the Queen and the Baby Jesus.

I'm a real fan of the later, sparer Pinter, starting perhaps with Landscape (above all) and Silence -- though with honourable mentions for the more constrained of the earlier plays like The Lover and, of course, The Dumb Waiter -- and continuing through No Man's Land and Betrayal to perhaps his greatest work of art: Mountain Language, in which his various resources as a playwright, poet and political thinker really fuse for the first and perhaps only time. Partly I mean by this that in that play he quite explicitly demonstrates a concern for the operations of language in a public context, where earlier works focus on damaged utterance as an expression of private struggles with different species of violence and loss: and that exactly this kind of disclosure of the opacity and ideological freighting of language is about the only tenable argument for the literary tendency in theatre. Pinter having been credited over the past few days with having invented or influenced everything from In-Yer-Face and Sarah Kane at one end of the axis to EastEnders and even Big Brother at the other (Mark Lawson's wrist must be aching, and not for the usual reason), one hesitates to pile on: but sometimes when I am asked to amplify on this admittedly fuzzy distinction I foolishly try to draw between play-wri(gh)ting and writing for theatre, I suggest that Landscape is exemplary in this respect as a tipping point, after which any sense of Pinter as graduate of weekly rep potboilers and whodunnits is finally expunged, and his devotion to multiplicity and to unreliability becomes such that they are released from service (to narrative or character) and become of interest in themselves as aspects of the theatrical situation -- or, for that matter, of any communicative encounter. Attempted definitions of 'Pinteresque' menace have been floated in recent days; what I think we see from Landscape onwards is menace uncoupling itself from the speeches or manners of specific characters, to become a salient aspect of language itself. Theatre has every right and every good reason to expose us to this condition of language; the preference, still, for tacitly insisting that language is a stable and transparent carrier of information is at best obfuscating and at worst sort of militantly inattentive, and as such profoundly untheatrical. (Pinter I suspect wouldn't have had much time for this analysis himself.)

The sad demise of Pinter was lent additional reverberance in my case because I've at last got around to Michael Billington's State of the Nation, and was reading about the early stages of Pinter's career just as the announcements were being made of his death. Partly this just made me boggle at how bloody long he was doing it (and never at any time, I think, irrelevantly or unsearchingly); how that matters in a curious way, just as it does with Brook. And, indeed, with Billington. In two ways State of the Nation is a brilliant book: as a personal memoir of theatre-going it is fascinating; as a thumbnail social history of post-war Britain it is useful and cogent. But frustratingly the book ends up slightly less than the sum of its parts, mostly because Billington trims his evidence to fit his thesis -- or, more likely I suspect, its thesis arises in the first place because he was always apparently most impressed by theatre that confirmed, not confounded, his sense of what theatre could be and what it could aspire to do. He appears to be more reliable on the older stuff (or I guess I just know ever so much less about it than he does); as he approaches the present era we, perhaps inevitably, part company. Not entirely: we share misgivings about empty spectacle and cheap sensation, though we may find it in somewhat discrepant locations. But he continually affirms his belief in the supremacy of the playwright, without ever really marshalling any analytical evidence -- whenever the question is tackled directly, here and elsewhere, it's always "I simply believe..." or "I still believe...". Behind this lie two basic assumptions -- misapprehensions, from my point of view, and quite widely held ones too: firstly, that the roles of the actor and director are inherently interpretive while a writer's is creative; secondly, that some contemporary makers' challenge to the playwright is in essence an attempt at a coup, a grab for supremacy, rather than a wholesale questioning of the models of creative authority and action that require someone, anyone -- necessarily, then, the playwright, as the only genuinely creative person in the process -- to be top dog in the first place. It's as if the creative vision can only belong to one person at a time, so if it's not writer's theatre then it must be director's theatre... What's frustrating is that if Billington were to actually engage with the collaborative practice and collectivist principles that have inspired so many devisers, I think he might find them congenially compatible with his own politics, which are obviously amiably leftist and impatient with rigidity and deference. I wonder if his interests and opinions would have taken a different course over the past few decades had he not been obliged to write about almost everything he saw? I'm sure it's in large part the poverty of critical language for talking about devised work that makes an equitable appreciation of its merits so difficult for him. What a pity; he could have helped out.

Mind you, these old narratives of authority and prestige can crop up in the most unexpected places. Another book I've had an eye on recently is Katie Mitchell O.B.E.'s new handbook, The Director's Craft. It's a welcome publication (in some respects) from a slightly unexpected source: of all the prominent directors you'd have thought might put out a nuts-and-bolts guide to directing, you might not have listed Mitchell, whose trajectory over the past decade in particular has been fascinating, idiosyncratic and wildly controversial. As Nick Hytner points out in his foreword -- though he's not ungracious enough to say it like this -- there's long been a potentially lucrative gap in the market for exactly this kind of book. But Katie Mitchell as your trusted guide? Hm. I mean I'm an admirer of Mitchell's, though I've missed many of her key works and hated her drab and witless Dream Play with such a passion that I still quite want to give her a Chinese burn even now. But there's no doubt she can go places, and get things done, that almost no one else working at that level can do: and the more genuinely exploratory she is, and the more manifestly open to criticism, the more I warm to her.

It's hard to believe, then, in some ways, that The Director's Craft is even by her. Its endless rules and checklists will seem bemusingly methodical to anyone who's witnessed the image-driven, intuitive, impressionistic qualities of her best work. Moreover, all of these rules are developed out of an approach that's basically Stanislavski on steroids; hell's teeth, the terrible grinding joylessness of it. At first I thought this simply indicated a canniness in terms of the targeting of the book, which will be invaluable, with all its bullet-points (none, actually, but dozens metaphorically), to second-rate student directors who are big on ambition and short on flair. But the more I read, the more I realise that basically Mitchell believes the same stuff about theatre as Billington. That the director and actor are interpreters, not creators. (Her interest in devising seems to stem largely from an interest in individual psychological insights, not from a determination to play around with creative methodologies.) That supremacy is everything, and in the reherasal room the director has that supremacy (the phrase 'chain of command' gets bandied about a bit, without examination) and must hang on to it at all costs. Thus: the aim of preparation, as a director, is so that you can immediately answer any question that an actor poses to you. (It becomes impossible to imagine Mitchell ever saying the phrase I find I use more often in the room than any other: "I don't know. What do you think?") There is no sense of conversation, of fluidity, of adaptivity, of eroticism, of daring -- of any of the things, in fact, that you might expect from the author. It really is baffling: particularly when anecdotal evidence also suggests that Mitchell's rehearsal room is seldom the model of order, clarity and lambent calm that she proposes in this text.

What's also baffling is Hytner's peculiarly ingenuous statement that this is not an addition to the existing canon of "many inspirational books about the purpose of theatre". I mean, sure, it doesn't set itself up as such, and I certainly don't find it inspirational (except in a weirdly bracing Calvinist way that I certainly wouldn't dare to try and take into the rehearsal room): but it's insane to imply, as Hytner does, that The Director's Craft is not manifestly pushing a particular agenda regarding the purpose of theatre. Given that there's no easy consensus on what theatre is for, even the most apparently objective list of how-to instructions inevitably, necessarily, amounts to a relief map of a certain vision for theatre, what it must do, how it must function. Nothing in The Director's Craft is actually dangerous, though remembering how student directors back in my day used Brook's Empty Space as if even that were a roadmap, I fear for a generation of slavish Mitchell copyists using this book as if it were some kind of dramatic Delia and unable to comprehend how their bullet-pointy rendering of Antigone or Waiting for Godot turned out so dull and anaemic and lacking in theatrical cranberries. But there is something really dodgy about pretending that questions of vision -- questions, in other words, about politics and ideology, about ethics in a civic context, about language and sexuality and power -- are optional, or that by refusing to discuss them (in relation not to particular plays but in relation to theatre in toto) you have somehow evaded them. I know this book isn't really for me (though admittedly there are useful glossaries and such for the embarrassed autodidact who still doesn't know the difference between... well, never mind...), and it is, on its own terms, clear, interesting and more than serviceable: but still, for The Director's Craft to leave me wanting to circulate a samizdat pamphlet called Mitchell Serves Imperalism is an odd pickle indeed -- and one whose piquancy will no doubt vastly disconsole Katie M. as she tries to fall asleep on top of the pile of royalty cheques that this weirdly dissembling book seems bound to generate.

Anyway, in the interests of balance, let me conclude by taking what will appear to be the reactionary view of a recently-emerged proposition. It's that time of year again, my darlings: the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award is soliciting applications for 2010. However, the rubric is very different this time out. I suspect this arises out of a confluence of two unrelated factors: firstly, following a period in which OSBTT developed an unenviable (and slightly unfair) reputation for picking duds, Slung Low's marvellous and widely acclaimed Helium has evidently restored the Trust's confidence and vindicated its willingness to support risky projects; secondly, o mercy, that ole Olympics money is starting to flow, meaning that access and innovation are the watchwords of the hour. Put these two trends together and what have you got?

"This year we will be awarding the prize to a company or individual to create a site-responsive / non-traditional performance space show to take place in one of the 5 host boroughs for the Olympic  and Paralympic Games that will be part of the Create Festival in East London during July 2010. We’re looking for a proposal that is inspired by, and takes place in a non-theatre space."


Well, look, obviously, this could be the start of something terrific, and I'm not going to pre-judge. What it does seem to represent, though, is a further embedding in what you might call the institutional mainstream of (a) site-responsive work, made for (b) non-theatre spaces: and I think it's time to really start examining the new orthodoxies we're dealing with here.

When I made my first home-performance piece as a student back in 1994 -- the first version of the production of the Tempest that eventually hit Edinburgh in 2000 and caught the eye of a few helpful grown-ups, most consequentially Lyn Gardner -- the catchphrase I'd repeat to anyone who asked was that "theatre is an experience you have, not a place you go to". I was still saying it in 2000 and in fact remember it turning up as a quote in the article Lyn wrote about the production at the time. I'd never heard anybody else say it, though I'm sure plenty had, or were at least thinking it: especially by 2000, when we were all sick to death of the disproportionate emphasis, in the pre-millennial disbursement of National Lottery funds, on creating new theatre buildings rather than investing in artists and productions to fill those spaces. I think there was also a certain frustration behind that home-theatre project to do with the slowness and unresponsiveness (and expense) of conventional venues; our little guerrilla Shakespeare unit, conversely, was totally plug & play -- in the noble tradition of Hollywood musicals we could 'do the show right here', wherever here was, without form-filling and often at just a few hours' notice.

The deeper aims of that work, though, were concerned not with the torpidity of venues or with the razzle-dazzle vacuity of New Labour funding patterns, but with the likely experience of the audience. We wanted to play to (and with) people who were not slumped in their plushy seats with half their attention focused on their Maltesers, but who were having to make decisions, constantly, about how to watch, where to sit, how to be in the room with us -- which meant, first of all, that they had to acknowledge that we were, indeed, in the room with them, and not mumming away in some remote bubble. We wanted them to be aware that, if they could hear us breathing, we could certainly hear them. We wanted to destroy the preposterous contract that seemed to support so much that was presented in the conventional space: a sort of unspoken and unexamined gentleman's agreement that we as artists wouldn't bother them if they as audience didn't bother us. Above all, perhaps, we wanted our audiences to come to understand that the place where the piece was finally made, and played itself out in all its fullest and most provocative tendencies, was inside them; that they held the work, carried it within them, not just during the show but for as long as it stayed afterwards.

Our determination, ultimately, was to disrupt, to disavow, the terrible seclusion that theatre seemed to be using to protect itself both from its audience and from the world around it. A genuinely engaged political theatre had to do more than be about politics; it had to be political itself, which meant a deep and sometimes fractious interrogation of the structural and formal characteristics of our work and the methodologies that shaped it. A close attentiveness to, and responsiveness to, the real and the live (whatever fictions and suspensions we might layer over these); a specificity of reference to site and time and occasion and presence (as opposed to a generalised anticipation of likely conditions): these were ways of enacting those political commitments, of giving away the presumptive power and authority that we didn't want and anyway didn't particularly need.

None of this will sound new to anybody, I'm sure; and all of it remains pertinent, to my mind, and, I hope, true of most of the work I've done, whether or not it was designated as 'site-specific' or 'site-responsive'. But while it remains true, I now find myself wondering more and more whether this increasingly popular migration to non-theatre sites is delivering the kind of theatre that we need, and whether it's time to look again at the theatre as a place you go as well as an experience you have.

The question bifurcates along what might uncomfortably be characterised as positive and negative lines. The negative argument is that a preponderance of supposedly site-responsive work has failed to create meaningful experiences for its audiences. This would be the Billington argument, I guess, though to the extent that I subscribe to it, it's not for Billingtonian reasons: quite the reverse, in fact. What I'd suggest, at base, is that the location of work in non-theatre spaces is not by any means a guarantee of site-specific or site-responsive work. The productive ramifications of specificity or responsiveness are for the most part not spatial but temporal. In other words, the creation of work for -- or even entirely in -- a particular space may or may not be radical; the real implications of responsiveness are in liveness, in structures which support a genuinely live engagement with and adaptation to the moment-to-moment occupation of a space. The slightly hippyish way of putting it is this: you have to listen to the space; a lot of supposedly site-responsive work is simply trying to talk louder than its surroundings. (Again, the battle for supremacy rather than sympathy.) Likewise, genuine interactivity with an audience requires an immensely sophisticated structural fluency and a sustained and comprehensive understanding of the performative matrix; it is desperately difficult to achieve, especially with scripted work. Again and again, what we actually see in supposedly site-responsive and/or interactive work is simply an importing into the found space of the same structures of power and authority that a typical pros arch theatre would conventionally imply, and perhaps at best a kind of tussling with that structure: either to make it fit the space or to make its failure to fit the space a kind of load-bearing titillation in the make-up of the encounter. This falls horribly short of the aspirations we have: but it's a huge ask. The found site can't merely suggest thematic content, or certain images, or a particular ambulatory journey for the audience: it has to tell you itself what the rules of engagement are. It has to imply its own species of theatre. In the absence of a willingness to face up to the unwieldy implications of that task, the productiveness of any specific place and time recedes, and the mere novelty of the location, or of providing no fixed seats for the audience, say, will end up being combed over to half-disguise the thinness of the concept.

So, that would be the negative argument, against an overreliance on site-responsiveness and the inherent eye-catching power of the non-theatrical space: that these elements are no guarantee in themselves of a meaningful theatre encounter -- nor do they even increase the likelihood of one. (If anything, the reverse: the challenges would, and do, frequently overwhelm artists who make smart and useful work for conventional theatres.)

But there's also the positive argument: not against the found space, but for the theatre space. To be sure, it's an argument that only really holds water because of the journey we've been on culturally in the past few years, thinking through these questions and sending theatre out into the streets to earn its keep as an experience. (Though when you phrase it like that, the irony of the site-specific production clearly resounds: so often, this kind of theatre is exactly "a place you go" rather than, or more than, "an experience you have".) We've learned a lot, one way and another, about site-specificity and site-responsiveness: and the question that now intrigues me most is this: how do we as theatre artists respond, specifically, to the designated theatre space?

At this point, we have to differentiate between a sort of abstracted, Platonic theatre space, and the kinds of venues in which we very often find ourselves working. The whole vocabulary and grammar of theatre has changed, or at least expanded massively, in the past twenty years, and a lot of inherited spaces now simply aren't compatible with what we're trying to do. This is a given, and a sucky one at that. But if we were now to set our minds not to the excitements of discovering the theatrical possibilities of "a town square, a shopping centre, a busy street, an office, a house, an industrial site, a waterway, a virtual world, library etc." (the OSBTT's helpful prompts), but instead to inventing new, permanent, designated theatre spaces, could that be worthwhile?

The analogue is, again, with that adjunct question of interactivity. I've just, at long last, written a review for Total Theatre of Ontroerend Goed's hugely significant Once And For All We're Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up And Listen, and -- *spoiler alert* -- one of the things I applaud about the show is the way in which (to quote myself for a second) it "indicates in passing how the most radical form of audience participation often is, exactly, to 'shut up and listen'." Now this comment shouldn't be broadened out to cover everything without an important chain of caveats. The artist's responsibility is to produce work worth shutting up and listening to. It has to nurture an audience's attentiveness: which it can only do by demonstrating an exemplary level of attentiveness itself. Very often this is going to be about responsiveness, specificity, detail, liveness: the work, in other words, must attend -- and in the highest possible fidelity -- to its audience, to their presence, to the moment of the encounter. It's very difficult for there to be no differential in power between artists and audience, so that residual power and authority has to be used respectfully and not trivialised. (This is not to say that this is no longer a space for play and mayhem and chaos; quite the reverse, in fact.) But a situation in which makers and audience sit together, holding in common something which they are together creating -- even if the audience's contribution is (apparently) 'limited' to a quiet, empathic attentiveness -- is able to be both meaningful and, vitally, unsecluded. In other words it is not different from the lives of those who attend, not an escapist hiatus in those lives nor some presumed transcendence of their conditions; it is a part, and perhaps a profound part, of their lives -- not even continuous with 'real life', but an element deeply and suasively apprehended within it.

It seems to me that, especially when we have a larger number of spaces fit to contain the function of supporting this encounter, the theatre as a type of specifically civic building then becomes much more dynamic. Perilously, perhaps ruinously, the closest thing to this that one can presently see is the church; this is perilous within the argument not merely because church buildings are themselves hard to distinguish from the ghastliness of the organizations and cultures for which they stand, but, of course, because church attendance numbers continue to decline, while audiences for theatre productions sans frontieres are presumably on the up-and-up: which makes the case that much harder to put. But two things strike me. 

Firstly, that for people of my parents' generation, going to church was part of being a good citizen (even if, as in my parents' case, they weren't particularly religious); in so far as this was a chore, an obligation, even an exercise in casual fakery, one wouldn't seek to replicate it now, but the question itself seems more and more to be arising, if not quite formulated as such, in matters of ecology, for example: how can we live good lives socially, civically, locally, as well as individually and as families or networks of friends? 

Which tessellates with my second observation. I was working at St Paul's, Covent Garden at the time of 9/11 and I was struck by how, in the days and even weeks following, how many more people than usual came to sit in the church at lunchtimes: not conspicuously praying or lighting candles, mostly, though some did. They just wanted a place to sit in silence with some other people -- even, or perhaps especially, people they didn't know. (As a sometime participant in Quaker services -- though even that space is now too loaded for me -- I recognize and respect the impulse.) Among my reactions to this phenomenon, which I understand was observed similarly in churches all across the country, I really wished that it was theatres, and not churches, that fulfilled this function: or, at least, that there were secular spaces in which that kind of quiet contemplation and reckoning, meaningfully enacted in the company of strangers, was possible. The Archbishop of Canterbury -- for whom, as you know, I have a soft spot (he being not, as was his predecessor, holier-than-thou, but rather, simply, beardier-than-God) -- likes to talk about churches in exactly this way (as I suppose most pogonotastic vicars probably do): as places people go to simply to sit silently "in the presence of the question". (I think I quote; if not, it's not far off.) In other words, to "shut up and listen".

It's probably lethal to my argument to be allying it to the civic functions of religious buildings: ain't nobody wants a piece of that cake, and understandably so. But I'm fascinated by the idea of a kind of wholly open theatre which follows similar lines in terms of, if you like, 'content'. Just as there are services at set points in the day and through the week, so your neighbourhood theatre would continue to host performances, and people would turn up to those (or not); but equally, the door to the theatre would be open at any time, and you could walk in off the street and sit for five minutes or five hours with -- what? I find myself imagining some kind of rolling improvisation in which the principal function of performers would be simply to let themselves be watched: to pay attention to the watchers, but also to allow themselves to be attended to. (Way harder than it sounds, and the reason why most professional performers are so busy creating diversions all the time.) That you'd watch bodies, and sounds, and objects, and light, and language, come into constantly changing relationships with each other, relationships that would support and respond to any intelligent reading, any genuine attentiveness. No narrative, no characters, no 'development' even (at least in a linear sense): just continual presence, continual change.

Well, I'm way off-topic now, and I may seem to you to be describing the most insipid kind of theatrical screensaver, and it may be that I am. For now, let that be irrelevant. The question I'm asking, I suppose, is how the idea of "the theatre" can once again be meaningful, and radically so, as a fixed point in our civic lives, even while it continues also to find new ways of flowing into other spaces. In the end, much though I love the idea of people stumbling happily or serendipitously across theatre in unexpected places (a valiant thread running from Allan Kaprow's Happenings to Punchdrunk's pre-Christmas treat last month) or of it coming to them (as we've done with all our home-theatre pieces), I find more and more that I want additionally to reaffirm the elective aspect of theatre-going. I want audiences to make the choice, the investment; I want them to see, to sense, the value of theatre -- not just the transient meaning of an individual production but the importance of theatre as a category of experience in itself. To make this possible, theatre has to be worthy of that investment; most of it, currently, probably isn't. Maybe my model of theatre is no more plausible than the model of an anarchosyndicalist Utopia that I'd like to see spring up around it: which is to say, these are perhaps useful imaginary beacons by which to navigate, and not much more than that, at least not in the near term. Nonetheless, there is in the OSBTT's current rubric, to my mind, a feint whisper of defeatism, and, yet again, the clear and present danger of a culture that can't tell the difference between novelty and innovation, between access and engagement, between reaction and response.

I continue to ponder -- not least in the research work I've been engaged with intermittently through Rose Bruford College -- the relationship between theatre and blogs, and the ways in which blog spaces might provide useful models for rethinking some of these vexatious questions about interactivity, collaborative practice, and (what I'm afraid I've started calling) nonsubjunctive virtuality. So let me finish by drawing your attention to a few blogs and other online stations I'm currently liking.

The brilliant young poet Tomas Weber, with whom I read in Cambridge late last year and had the privilege to hang out with a bit either side of that, has a new blog, One Year Floods Rose, which I like enormously. It's more active and more various than his previous blog, and perhaps more approachable, more relaxed. Having said which, I don't know that he'll thank me for driving a lot of traffic his way: but he deserves wide readership and good conversation, for sure. It's also high time I linked to Matt Trueman over at Carousel of Fantasies: I don't always agree with him (perish the &c.) but he writes with rare intelligence and poise about worthwhile theatre, and with the tumbleweed still bobbing around at Postcards..., he and Performance Monkey are keeping the dream alive. (Alternatively, you could just do a load of crack, put your face really close to your computer screen, click on West End Whingers and try to make a three-dimensional 'magic eye' image appear by defocusing your eyes. All the kids are doing it. It's called wendying, I believe.)

Moving gradually in an extracurricular direction, Riflemind is home base to London-based Australian theatre maker and poet John Kachoyan; the blog is poetry-based and dances seductively (and productively) with the high complexities of online identity, to produce a cumulative impression of intimacy and intensity that's as slippery as it is compelling. And Count Candy is a newish picture-based blog which intersperses images and video clips of nice-looking boys and girls with candid, one might easily say lurid, snaps of cakes and biscuits --naturellement -- as well as arty flotsam and cartoony jetsam. (Not to be confused with the well-known Californian pet psychologist Cartoony Jetsam Jr., who sadly can't be with us tonight.) It's a mix that seems to be designed specifically to appeal to me -- particularly with my woeful lecherousness becoming ever more equal-ops as I age. (Maybe my dad was right all along, and my horrible cliched Uranianism was a phase; at this rate, I'll be over it by the time I'm 78. Whew!)

Right: well, it'll soon be time to go to work, so I guess that's enough for now. Not sure when I'll pass this way again -- it depends partly on progress (or otherwise -- but it mustn't be otherwise) with King Pelican, and also internet access (and spare time) while we're in Cambridge. Guess we'll just have to see what happens. Sayonara, kids. xx

10 comments:

Andrew Haydon said...

Tumbleweed? I posted this five minutes before you started your post :-)

Chris said...

Indeed. I stand, or slump, corrected.

Your South Park Gilbert & George made me weep with giggling, and almost forgive your ludicrous and irresponsible championing of Press, that chilly, coagulating dollop of masturbatory French sleaze. :)

pip-pip xx

simon said...

Happy new year you.
Um, "off-topic", all this stuff about serving the purpose of churches seems to me, as I've probably mentioned before, what art galleries provide, rather than theatres. I mean I know it's not why YOU got to an art gallery, but I certainly pop in for silence, and I can't be alone, in fact I'm probably in the majority, there just aren't that many interested parties... And when no service was taking place, that's exactly what a church was, wasn't it? An art gallery. Why do you want a theatre to serve the same purpose as an art gallery? Or maybe I haven't read this closely enough.
This is the last noughty, next stop the wunties.

Jonny Liron said...

But in an art gallery you are not listening together, its a very individual experience, I mean of course, you are interacting with each each other, bodily, catching glances, but when you are interacting with the work, well for a start, normally there's a lot of work, a lot of questions, as opposed, well, not opposed, really, but yeah, its like, its you and the piece, most of the time, and when its not, when a piece requires more than one person responding, or when you find yourself watching the work with someone else, then maybe thats theatre, I don't know why you seem to think they are so different.
its just like, and well, the thing is is that, the pieces in the gallery are static, maybe, they are not responding to you, unless of course its like a piece with other people in, and you could stand and watch them, but then thats theatre right?

simon said...

Hello Johhny. Maybe I'm not saying it's different, I just didn't see why Chris calls this specifically "Theatre". But no, yes, I was really thinking of the kind of "stopping into church" visits that Chris referred to after 9/11, ie simply finding somewhere quiet and dedicated to something other than the individual. This reminds me of a gallery. And a church once upon a time was where you went to look at art. This by the way is my huge beef as a freethinking artist with the Dawkins/stop-worrying-and-enjoy-your-life school of patronizing atheism: Religion was once Art (being right is only ONE of the important things, not the be all and end all, and being wrong also serves a purpose.) That this -roll back a bit - is no longer the case is Religion's fault, however, not Art's... And I am very sympathetic to Chris' hankering after an equivalent to weekly church-going, which attendance at a gallery is not. It's just the only way to create this theatre seems to me to be to do it from within an already existing social structure, and this can only happen, whether politically or religiously, among a group of people who ALREADY ALL BELIEVE THE SAME THING - no? - which is where, sympathetic as I am to Chris' call to arms, I can't entirely get behind his dream of theatre. Because I don't like a theatre that needs me to agree with it. I do like a nice staged dilemma, but no social form of assembly can really thrive if all it ever does is pose questions, although I don't want to make Dawkins' mistake of assuming that people go to church "for answers". I just hate any assumption that I share the values of those sitting next to me. And I also think theatre's right to lie (which it need not exercise) makes it a safer house for demons than angels. A demon in this case is a bad idea that never dies. Theatre is not responsible. That's what I mean. Many thanks.
rallomin!

simon then said...

Sorry Chris, talking about you like you're not there! How rude. It's just there didn't come any point in that where it was obvious to re-direct the address. I mean, you're not there, but you know. So yeah, but yeah.

Chris said...

Simon & Jonny: Hello chaps. Thanks for this interesting backchat. Some less-interesting kind of response now ensues.

I recognize that, as a site for reflection / contemplation, the gallery can function very close to this kind of theatrical model: though I'd say (not at all facetiously; I don't know why this is going to sound so facetious...) it kind of depends on the gallery and the artworks, mostly. I think the only gallery I go to for that kind of experience regardless of what's actually 'on' is Tate Modern: which is not, in fact, that satisfactory as a locale of that kind: partly because it's always so busy it's very difficult to establish generative relations with any of the art; and partly because I always seem to forget that I'm going to experience a kind of low-level anger at the thematic displays from the permanent collection, even if I just walk past them.

The vital difference for me I think is in the theatre (in my proposal) creating a space in which that kind of (somewhat self-affirming) quiet reflection is focused on people-sized people rather than objects or images. (Even when visual art presents people-sized people, on video say or in photographs, or when it implies people-sized people, I don't feel a direct connection with those people because they have a patina of being authored by artists in the same way that a fourth-wall play has an estranging patina which we are supposed to agree to ignore.) I don't know that I necessarily want, in the theatre of this model, a communal experience of myself within an audience: I imagine it being quite sparsely attended from moment to moment and this being a good thing. But I do want to be able to feel the heat of reciprocal attention -- I guess that's what a lot of church-goers are after too; it doesn't seem like something you'd go to a gallery for. I want it to matter that I'm there just as much as it matters that the actors are there. In a gallery, it doesn't matter that I'm there, except to me -- and perhaps, in an almost meaninglessly broad generalised sense, to the artist, who is absent anyway.

It may be true that this model is dependent on a community of existing belief, and of preaching to the choir therefore, etc etc. But it matters, doesn't it, what that belief is, and where in the chain of meaning-creation it's located. The constituency I imagine being able to relate to this kind of civic node has beliefs that are qualitatively very different to any kind of religious belief because they arise in the absence, the willed absence, of any kind of credible authority. A religious congregation gathers in orbit around a set of doctrinal assertions and theological extrusions and liturgical expressions and most of them will have established, or be in the process of establishing, relations with those core tenets, which are necessarily external to them. Whereas I think the beliefs that a theatre modelled in this way could ideally respond to have no such fixed centre that has to be reckoned with. These beliefs are, essentially, questions; or there's one belief, which is a commitment to engage with such questions. The questions might overlap just as much as religious beliefs overlap: after all they're probably the same ethical / moral / philosophical / political questions that have exercised people for ever. So what they ALL ALREADY BELIEVE is that it's important for people to preserve some space in their lives to consider those kinds of questions, which may be as immutable or as ephemerally specific as the questions behind prayer. I suppose the closest I've ever felt to this kind of space is the Quaker meeting -- though as I say there is a certain aura of faith alongside the searching and the not-knowing, which I found ultimately incompatible with my own disquiet.

And what my model also proposes is this human-scale reference, in substitution (I suppose you could say) for that doctrinal core. That I think I can grasp those questions more productively if I consider them in relation to the movement and presence of others with whom I am manifestly continuous and whom I can dare to find beautiful. Partly, I realise, this contains residues of anger & distress at the lack, or the absence, or the occlusion, within communal Christian practice, of the human-scale Jesus, unmagnified and kind of fully revealed without the tyrannically pre-emptive envelopment of God. That, I guess, is the conversation I really want to have.

So I'm not sure I agree about the impossibility of thriving social assembly that only ever poses questions. I think the constant reassertion of these questions can quite affirmatively hold a social space open. It depends what you mean by 'thrive'. Though also, following on from Devoted & Disgruntled, I recognize the importance of an adjacent technology through which things can be made to happen, whether that be the 8pm theatre 'show', or some irruption of activist performance, or a way of more sustainably embedding a produced change in one's own life. The 8pm show is not the least or most trivial of those, just as a church without fixed-point services might as well be a gallery.

I can see it wouldn't be for everyone. But I'd like it to have a more credible claim on everyone's attention than does the established church right now. I think it could do that. I think it could be way harder to refuse. Which is a more positive thing than it sounds. I mean it seems to me that lots of people, myself included, are really disappointed and annoyed that they can't take church seriously because of some of the terrible things for which it happens to stand.

You're right, theatre is not responsible, just as love is not responsible. But we have the opportunity to persist in sharing love and, exactly likewise, in promoting theatre; we would defeat more than ourselves to ignore that fact.

Any good? xx

simon said...

As crystal, Chris.
x
preuton

TS said...

"theatre is an experience you have, not a place you go to"

I think that 'place' is still a very useful imaginative characterisation of (at least a part of) the experience.

Particularly because it opens up thinking about the journey one takes to reach the place. And then to leave it. Which is always part of the experience.

"the event starts when you first hear about it and finishes if and when you finally forget about it".

And it's also great to think as if you are the person who is making that journey.

ps
thanks C, J and S for the gallery/church excursion. unsurprisingly rich thinking.

John said...

Chris - humbled to be found and found out. Love your work in UK (both poetic and theatrical) hope to be back there soon, making work!