Just back from Some of the Futures at the ICA; my contribution seemed to go down pretty well and a couple of people have already asked for the text, so here it is. There's not much here that longterm Thompson's readers won't have seen before, but the format I used required me to curb my usual prolixity (so as to be able to fit each minute of the text onto a postcard), which I dare say is enough of a novelty in itself.
This could use a sprinkling of hyperlinks, but they might have to wait for another day: I had to be up pretty early this morning to travel back from Manchester (where Queer Up North was a pleasure -- reception of Where You Stand quite muted, perhaps understandably) and bed is giving me its naughty 'come hither' beckon...
Anyway thanks to everyone who came to the ICA this evening and particularly thanks to those who responded so warmly. It was a fun thing to do.Update: Here's my audio recording of the lecture; also, for Merv, because he asked so nicely, the backing track(s). Anyone who can identify all 30 tracks wins a speedboat.
I hope I might be able to post the audio recording I made, if it's OK -- but again, that's going to have to wait for another day...
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Hello. I agreed to take part in this event knowing that I wouldn’t have time to prepare a thirty minute lecture. The solution I hit on, which I thought was ingenious, was to write thirty one-minute lectures, or twenty-nine lectures plus this preface. Actually I’m pretty sure that the preparation of these postcards of (if not exactly from) the future was, in the event, massively more time-consuming than a straight lecture would have been. But at least it’s tickled me out of my usual formal strategies and into a fantasia of jump-cuts. I think there are the materials for an argument in here somewhere but you might have to assemble it yourself. The music, which is mostly there to keep me company, is overlaid with beeps to keep me moving. This preface was written on the sunny early evening of Tuesday 18th May on a balcony outside a hotel room in central Manchester. At the time of writing I can hear trains and bell-ringing practice and the profoundly disturbing sounds emanating from a gym across the street called Primal Fitness. I make theatre and this is the present day, which is to say, some of the futures are already upon us.
The several layers of ambient noise out here on my temporary balcony remind me to note that at least in the one-minute format there is an (admittedly only semi-advertent) nod to John Cage, who remains the best expert we have on everything that hasn’t yet happened, as apparently stuck in the future as most of the rest of live performance is stuck in the past: so I feel like saying first of all that theatre’s future depends partly on its willingness finally to come to terms with and absorb the example of past pioneers. No pudding till you’ve eaten your greens. I think one of the biggest problems my generation of makers has had is that we’ve grown up in the shadow of an earlier generation that’s been a bit embarrassed about the 60s and 70s. A generation that came of age just as post-punk, which was very good at thinking about the future, lost the thread of its own irony, and everything became Club Tropicana, where the drinks were free and the future was even more embarrassing than the past, with the possible exception of modernism which was the most embarrassing thing of all.
In this dream, it’s 1996 and I am a dog. We are in a theatre. In fact we’re in this theatre. There’s a man on stage with a fake bomb, made out of fake sticks of dynamite, strapped to his chest, and he’s talking sort of ironically about stage craft. Some people in the audience are laughing and some aren’t. // As a dog, I find it hard to imagine whether I would be laughing or not if I were a human. My vision goes blurry for a moment. The dynamite looks like sausages. // I am watching from the side of the stage. No one has seen me. I have a bomb strapped to my chest. It is real. // I want to sniff the fake dynamite strapped to the man’s chest. I want to know if it smells like dynamite. Or sausages. Or maybe it has no smell. // I trot out on to the stage. I am a real dog and I have a real bomb strapped to my body. I am breathing. The bomb is ticking. I have nothing to say about stagecraft, and I have no real use for, like, the ironic as a category. And my bomb smells like dynamite.
In this dream, it’s 2010 and I’m not even a dog. I’m just a theatre maker. We are in a theatre. In fact we’re in this theatre, and it’s now, and we’re actually here, and it’s not even a dream. What does it smell like? Nothing in particular. // We’ve been in exile. For a while, theatre wasn’t very welcome here. Having found itself, perhaps somewhat unwittingly, in a coalition with new media arts, it had allowed itself to appear to some people to stand for nothing in particular. It was a sector described as lacking “depth and cultural urgency”, and we were duly outraged. Some of us said we never wanted to come here in the first place, and some of us felt that the relevant powers wouldn’t be able to pick out depth and cultural urgency in a line-up of six items or less. But didn’t it, come on, didn’t it slightly feel like a punishment? And didn’t we go off that night and see a performance somewhere and secretly think, hm, that was actually kind of lacking in depth and cultural urgency? Didn’t we worry a bit about our own work? Didn’t it feel just a little bit like a punishment? Wasn’t there a moment of feeling caught out?
I don’t make live art, I make theatre, but now’s not the time to try and articulate my sense of what the difference might be because I’d only then immediately undermine my assertion of the depth and cultural urgency of theatre by mentioning Stephen Sondheim, which is exactly what I’m about to do. Sondheim’s early musical Company is a story about a bachelor, a longterm singleton, and all his friends are in relationships, and at the end of the show, in a scene set at his own birthday party, he sings a song called ‘Being Alive’ in which he itemises all the things that make other people annoying to live with and difficult to love. And then he has a bit of a think about it and decides that what’s really missing in his life is all the annoyingness and difficulty that sharing it with another person would bring. And what brings about his change of heart is that one of his married friends tells him, “Blow out the candles and make a wish. Want something. Want something.” Maybe we can imagine a version of that song called ‘Being A Live Artist’, and it would contain exactly the same line. “Want something. Want something.”
It used to seem to me that sometimes making theatre was like taking care of a young and particularly fractious baby to whom you are godparent. Sometimes it just cries and cries and nothing seems to make it any better and you end up just shouting at it, “What is it? What do you want?” // Eventually I realised the basic problem was that I had misconceptualised the relationship. You are the baby, and theatre is the godparent, and you are the one being held, and it’s theatre that’s on the brink of despair. “What is it? What do you want?” // Theatre, like all creative activities, but perhaps more than any, is first and foremost the art of wanting. It might matter to some degree what it is that you want, but an attentiveness to the want itself comes first and deepest. // To want, to really want, can feel shameful. We are told all the time not to be self-indulgent in our work. To want is to be the author, and that feels increasingly sticky. To want is to signal a lack, and that can be exposing. Wanting is the easiest and the hardest thing to do.
At present we’re going through a period in which one way of avoiding wanting too much, too exposingly, is to ask the audience what it wants. This is a totally legitimate desire and it sounds quite progressive but to equip an audience with the information they need in order to authentically want something within the space you’re holding open for them is an extremely difficult task, and one that still requires the artist to have a very clear sense of what it is that they want out of the encounter. For the audience to feel that they have been left holding the baby is all wrong. They have to know that they’re the baby. They have to feel held. But they also have to feel understood, or else they develop a terrible sense of their own infantilisation. They can’t make themselves clear. They’re at the mercy of an adult who knows less than they do about how they feel. // Too often, securing the parameters for an audience to want things in turns out to be so incredibly difficult that you end up in a room where nobody wants anything, but is required to accept the desires projected on to them. Do you want your rattle? Yes you do!
A friend of mine once went to see Fiona Shaw performing Beckett’s Happy Days, and hated it. After the final words were spoken, and the stage lights had dimmed, right then in that little niche of reverent blackout time before the inevitable rapturous ovation, my friend, without entirely intending to, found himself saying aloud: “Utter shit.” All eyes turned on him and he now describes it as the most embarrassing moment of his life. The level of embarrassment he experienced seems to me to reflect the violence of the situation. For some, that violence will appear to be contained in my friend’s exquisitely timed heckle, just as those in the seats around him clearly adjudged his wounding remark – wounding not just to the actress on stage but to the silence that was rightfully hers – to be a violent act. But isn’t it rather that my friend was acting in self-defence, in the refusal of a tyrannical violence that the whole apparatus of that theatre event is designed to uphold? That system demands a total complicity, and our choices are three: silent assent and collusion; tacit distantiation; or to speak, and thus ventriloquize the violence that inheres in the situation.
Calling Fiona Shaw “utter shit” is not what most advocates of interactivity have in mind. This in itself is indicative. What’s at stake is control. As an audience we are generally required to lend our participation on terms that we can take or leave but not normally negotiate. There’s plenty of so-called interactive work in digital media that is doing little more than elaborately decorating the same curt binary: you can click here, or you can fuck off. What we have become used to is a simulation of interactivity, in which not having a seat, say, is a denatured proxy for having a real stake in the proceedings and the necessary information to form the basis of a genuine decision-making process. What I’m reminded of above all is the way in which liberal democracies are strengthened by their own visible toleration of dissent. Protest marches are quickly and cleanly absorbed in the name of exemplary freedom and democracy, and the right to strike is hygenically curtailed in the courts, while the freedom to be able to speak without being a mouthpiece for institutional violence is everywhere obliterated.
The worst thing about this model of simulated interactivity is that it reduces wanting to its capitalist effigy, ‘freedom of choice’. So I can wander round this corridor rather than that one, I can choose to follow this rather than that strand of the story, just as I can choose Pringles in a pink tube which taste like fabric conditioner or Pringles in a green tube which taste like a yeast infection. What I may not do, as those who have stepped out of line in such performances will often attest, is interrogate the premises of my own freedom, and the structures that prevent me from exercising my freedom beyond the cold mechanics of a pre-authorised array of choices in which my own personal investment is nugatory or indecipherable. // To want something, to want something, at least in relation to the possibility of working creatively with that desire and beyond the horizons of commodity movement and templated gratification, is an act that requires an intellectual commitment and a sophisticated level of sensitivity to the body’s own data processing. Wanting is deep, and it is culturally urgent, and it begins with wanting desire itself.
Eleven years ago I started a company called Signal to Noise, which borrowed its name from the idea in cybernetics that wherever information is moving around, it is also changed in transit. It gets scuffed, broken up. The liveness of theatre, especially but not only when it is permitted to be fully itself, means that it has a sure tendency towards this kind of turbulence, quite a low signal to noise ratio. I wanted to make work that was full of noise, full of turbulence, that celebrated (rather than attempting to suppress) the qualities of theatre that make it theatre, that make it unpredictable and ephemeral and resistant to commodification. // After our first show, a wildly turbulent queer sci-fi dance-theatre epic, somebody who saw it said he felt sad to imagine that I might think all the signals were somehow lost, that nothing remained but a kind of chaos and cacophany. But for me the signal that survived was the most important thing. Not because of the thing itself, but because of the thing behind the thing. Communication might fail, but the desire to communicate was always somehow preserved in all the noise.
In 2008 I made my first piece in collaboration with the actor Jonny Liron. It was called Hey Mathew and it was, among other things, an attempt to make a piece of theatre that was genuinely candid in its staging of queer erotics without simulation, without coyness and without much regard for where the line is normally drawn. // Towards the beginning of the process Jonny and I went away for a weekend to start working on this sexual content. The only ground rule we had was that I would, as the saying goes, look but not touch. Everything else we negotiated as we went along. Some of the work was as challenging aesthetically as it was complex ethically, and we talked a great deal, making sure we were both OK, figuring out how to pay close enough attention to what we wanted. What I particularly remember from that weekend, though, and this remains my most striking emotional memory of it, was that no matter how difficult, how searching the conversation got around the intellectual underwriting of the work, still every time Jonny got a hard-on, I got one too. The blood in his body speaking directly to the blood in mine.
You might remember that the tagline of John Cameron Mitchell’s film Shortbus is: ‘Voyeurism is participation.’ It’s a maxim that comes back to me whenever people deride the predicament of the seated audience, poor saps, kept in the dark (with all the metaphorical payload that implies). How remiss of theatre to ask its audience to sit so passively. – Well there’s something in that of course. Theatre often does assume a passive audience, but this has nothing to do with the configuration of the theatre auditorium, the seating, the distribution of light. All of those factors need to be considered but the passivity of an audience depends wholly on how successfully and how seductively a stage piece asks for their active engagement. At present we consistently undervalue the work that an audience does in being present and aware of its own presence, in paying attention, in reading and re-reading what it sees and hears, in helping to hold the piece in common: all of which, given the right conditions, it can do in the most conventional pros arch theatre you can imagine.
I went to see Laurie Anderson’s Delusion at the Barbican a few weeks ago. I think she’s brilliant at subtly establishing the ways in which she needs your attention, and the ways in which your active imaginative participation is required. // Seeing Delusion really reminded me of a passage in Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities, in which he describes Marco Polo’s attempts to communicate without language the stories of his travels to Kubla Khan. It goes like this: “The connections between one element of the story and another were not always obvious to the emperor; the objects could have various meanings. [. . .] But what enhanced for Kubla Khan every event or piece of news reported by his inarticulate informer was the space that remained around it, a void not filled with words. The descriptions of cities Marco Polo visited had this virtue: you could wander through them in thought, become lost, stop and enjoy the cool air, or run off.”
Where were you on the day that the blithe elision of live and new media arts became untenable? It was years before Ekow Eshun made his pronouncement on the topic. My company, Signal to Noise, was still in its early days, we’d started to make a little name for ourselves doing performances in people’s homes. One source of inspiration was Pierre Joris’s nomadic poetics manifesto. Dissident cultural activity had to occupy the same circuits that military industrial power used to move information around. The old buildings and monuments, the spectacular sites of institutional control, were no longer meaningfully occupied. I remember posting something online suggesting that the only efficacious political poetry now feasible was the writing of viruses. It seemed like we were living in Tron, battling the neocons on light-cycles. And then, on September 11th 2001, we were reminded, acutely and sensationally, that, to take out of context a brilliant phrase of Utah Phillips, “the past didn’t go anywhere”: buildings and machines and bodies were still on the frontline, and live arts and new media sat in quite antithetically distinct relations with those entities.
In the aftermath of 9/11, and as a consequence of it, two things permanently shifted in my sense of my practice as a theatre maker. // One came in the days immediately after. I had a day job as a charity administrator, in an office within St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden. In those few days, many more people came to sit in the church. Mostly they didn’t seem to be praying, they didn’t light candles, there was no visible religious component to their presence. They just needed to wrap a building around themselves, a building with some sort of civic signature. And it seemed to me that there should be a more appropriate building for that function than a church, one that was less loaded with ideology and less intricated in the operations of what we might call the establishment. // The other was an article written some months later by the poet and activist Brian Kim Stefans, in which he described a desire to turn away from ‘internet art’ (his phrase) and towards ‘theatre’. “We need bodies out there,” he wrote, “[. . .] on the streets [where] we live [. . . in] the daylight [. . .] since that is the world in which I was dumped when the planes struck.”
I had a soundbite for the press interviews that went along with our Signal to Noise production of The Tempest in audiences’ own homes. “I’ve always tried to remember,” I’d confide, “that theatre is an experience you have, not a building you go to.” People liked that. And it’s true that an act of theatre can be undertaken anywhere, at any time, by anyone who wants it. But here we all are, sitting in a theatre that is still called a theatre despite only rarely in the last few years hosting any kind of theatre, let alone any theatre that was content to call itself theatre. The editors of the excellent new Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater lament that theatre changes more slowly than poetry does: but poetry is not the name of a kind of building, and buildings, even now, change more slowly than minds do. Ten years on, and about to start rehearsing a new piece for home performance, I would like, speculatively, to invert my soundbite. What if, while retaining our current plurality of performance spaces, both real and virtual, we said that theatre would in the future be distinguished by dint of its happening in a designated theatre building?
BAC has of late been using a nicely bracing strapline. It is, it says, “inventing the future of theatre”. This implies that by showing up there, perhaps for a Scratch performance, and giving some feedback on what you see, you can play a role in that process of invention: and that’s a good thing for audiences to feel. My construction of that sentiment is somewhat differently wired. As I said in my tiny contribution to Programme Notes a couple of years ago, “theatre is the place where people gather together to invent their future”. Not the future of theatre, but their future. The implication, which I stand by but won’t in this format try to justify, is that theatre is uniquely well placed to be the medium in which we re-engineer our social relationships and our way of being together communally as well as culturally. Faced with the inevitable but excruciatingly slow death of capitalism and a looming environmental crisis some of the consequences of which we might be quietly looking forward to, theatre could be the most productive technology at our disposal for thinking together about what comes next; about who we want to be to each other.
Two quotations that circle around my head. Aaron Sorkin gives President Bartlet in The West Wing a sort of catchphrase that should be written in the window of every theatre in town. He says: “Decisions are made by those who show up.” Audiences need to know this. Going to the theatre should feel like voting, only not useless in 97% of locations. And then there’s a song by Kate Bush called ‘Love and Anger’ where she sings: “We’re building the house of the future together / What would we do without you?” // I know not everyone feels, perhaps not everyone ever could feel, as I do, that theatre has saved my life: which is to say, it has made it possible for me to inhabit, intermittently but for real, a life infinitely more fit for living than the parallel one that propels me through the out-of-order automatic doors at Morrisons on a Sunday afternoon. Perhaps not everyone can feel that. But couldn’t going to the theatre become a more vibrantly elective act? A more affirmative kind of commitment? An act of deeply, urgently wanting, desiring, the thing behind the thing?
In this dream there is a building to which you have free, unticketed access, day and night. At the heart of this building is a room, where you can sit, or stand, or lie, for as long as you want, in the company of others, or sometimes, it might so happen, on your own. This room also contains one or more actors. That’s the word we use to describe them. They’re not there to perform. They’re there simply to act, to act on behalf of the others who are gathered there, to make actions, to commit themselves to various kinds of activity. You might pop in for ten minutes on your lunchbreak and watch two men in blindfolds slowdancing. You might pop in for an hour after work instead of going to the gym, and watch five people build a model of Mumbai out of donated car parts. On the evening after your cat dies you might stay up all night with a woman you’ve never met before listening as she tells you a seemingly endless story about an old man who steals a motorbike and rides across the desert. You might spend twenty-one minutes thirty seconds watching a stranger stand naked in the light, and stop worrying about your unpayable gas bill.
24-hour rolling theatre is not a new idea, but as far as I know it’s not been tried for any sustained period. The closest conceptual relation in recent years has probably been Brian Eno’s Civic Recovery Centre, which anyway has only been fleetingly realised, but the presence of actors in the model I’m describing seems to me crucial. Practical obstacles abound so if we have to treat this merely as a thought experiment then, OK, fine, whatever. But see what this does?
Everything is improvised, or prepared in the same space that it’s shown and in the same full view. The freighted prestige of the actor within the apparatus of the theatre production is destroyed; the role of the director changes, the role of the writer, the designer, the musician, is folded into the live unit. Nobody mistakes this theatre for a kind of literature. Our current marketing apparatus becomes sublimely redundant. The relationship of the person in the street is not with the individual show, but with theatre itself as a special register of activity, one which simply involves an attentive encounter with others, in a place that’s designed specifically to nurture it.
On the whole I haven’t wanted, in considering the future, to pay much attention to the kind of trends that trendspotters spot: but in the light of these thoughts about the structuring of theatre, I’m interested to recall that after Web 2.0, the flowering of user-generated content, we’re promised, by some, the return of expertise, of those who can reliably help us navigate the multiplicities. To minimise the power differential between actor and audience, to rethink the job of the director, to disperse authority, is not to downplay the importance of skill, craft, elegance and rigour in all of those roles; on the contrary, it’s to lean harder on those qualities. To be an actor, to be a maker, should be an extraordinary way of life, one that we shouldn’t be afraid to call a vocation. It’s because I care so much about the experience of the audience and the potential of theatre to incite radical change that I want to say: Fuck your feedback forms; fuck your Twitter reviews; fuck your snarky comments on the Guardian blog. I’m working in theatre pretty much every waking minute, I work hard and I want excellence and we are specialists and this is not trivial.
If I’m arguing for a return to the notion that theatre is not just an experience you have but a place you go to congregate with others and share that experience, we had better for a moment consider the site-specific. This is a category of work that like so many others is regrettably hidebound by our continuing failure to distinguish form from content. Which is to say that our excited focus has been on the site. Partly this is media-driven – do me a Titus Andronicus in a bus station and you can have a photo across three columns. A previously unused site will seem to equal novelty, even if what’s placed there is no more than an arrangement of reupholstered deckchairs on the same old Titanic. What’s deep and culturally urgent about the site-specific is not the site but the specific, which theatre has always struggled with. Prefabricated theatre is always conceived in a blur of generalities. To be specific is to be responsive not just to the site of the work but to its audience, to its social context, to its cultural moment, to the weather. Theatre is made here and now specifically between us, and whatever is not is not worthy of the name.
It is, to be specific, 10.15pm Friday 21st May as I write these words. I’m in a different hotel room further downtown and I can barely hear the signals of central Manchester on a Friday evening above the noise of the aircon. Both the ice machines in the hotel are broken so I’m drinking warm diet Coke. It’s diet Coke because exactly a year ago in yet another hotel in Manchester I did the home test that revealed that I had become diabetic. All this is instantly, specifically, the case. I’ve just done the last performance of a new piece called Where You Stand which is partly made out of a collaborative blog. Working in that way reflects the question that burns most ardently for the moment. How can the work I make speak in high fidelity to the complexity of how we now live and the almost overwhelming challenge to work towards living better, in a way that feels less violent, less exploitative, more equitable, more joyfully queer? For the last couple of years I’ve had three tenets in mind, that I try to make every piece of work conform to. I thought I’d have improved on them by now, but I haven’t. I’ll finish up by talking about those.
One of the most interesting provocations of recent times was Marina Abramovic’s insistence at her curated live art show at last year’s Manchester International Festival that the audience should undergo a period of ‘initiation’ (her word) before they were admitted to the gallery. One might well feel anxious about the liminoid insularity this could bestow on the work, but it’s certainly true that we arrive for most theatrical encounters underequipped for their fullest demands: and when I say ‘we’ I mean makers and actors as well as audiences. I want theatre to promote attentiveness, because nothing else currently does, and the quality of political thought and cultural analysis that we’re capable of is enfeebled as a consequence. Tim Allen and Andrew Duncan, in the introduction to their collection of interviews with poets, Don’t Start Me Talking, say this, which I love: “Attention is a pure good. What brings states of high attention, is successful as art without further ado.” I’d rather compel people’s attentiveness through irresistible seduction than through bootcamp crash-course workshops in meditation or whatever, but it’s all good.
Why do we only ever hear about the loftiest aspirations of theatre organizations when they find themselves faced with closure? Why does it take a crisis to make us reach beyond the language of marketing for a kind of diction that breathes civic oxygen? Signal to Noise was born into, and in opposition to, a British theatre culture that was too cool for political ardour, too in love with its cynicism to actually dare to want something. We instinctively understood what Zizek now reminds us: that a thrall to irony signals not a diminution of feeling, but a fear of the vertiginous depth and cultural urgency of that feeling; an unwillingness to face up to the terror of wanting. Back in the day we talked about sincerity, not realizing that Blair and Bush would attempt to legitimise their psychotic criminality in exactly those terms. So now we talk about desire, about wanting desire, trusting it, the thing behind the thing. When irony is complacent and cowardly, and sincerity is toxic, our want, our naked fessed-up want, is a tender, humane refusal of both. Theatre, then, because we need a public place where we can deeply care about what we want.
In Where You Stand I nick a bit from Sara Ahmed’s brilliant book Queer Phenomenology, in which she notes, not at all in the context of theatre, that the ‘rect’ in ‘direction’ is the same as the ‘rect’ in ‘correct’ and ‘rectitude’ and for that matter ‘rectangle’. It’s all about straightness. As a director, it would seem to follow, my role is about keeping everything straight. Orderly and tidy and straight and narrow. It doesn’t seem to fit me at all. I mentioned this to Jonny, about the ‘rect’ in ‘director’, and he said, yes but don’t forget it’s also the ‘rect’ in ‘erection’. This would seem to conjure an image in which as a director I’m the conductor not just of chaos but of a chorus line of cocks. I hope it’s not as actually phallocentric as that but once I have your attention I do quite want to shape, or at least help to hold open, your experience of desire. I recall Natalie Abrahami’s statement regarding her anxiety about nudity on stage: isn’t it distracting to spend all evening watching someone’s genitals? My answer: not if those genitals are the most beautiful thing on stage. Desire is always political. Want something. Want something.
We encourage a profound level of attentiveness; we hold open the space of desire, we induce an intrepid wanting, in the knowledge that all desire when examined reveals itself as the desire for change. And then we stop, too soon. On purpose. Before the picture is clear, before the argument is clinched, before the perfect cadence is resolved, we stop. The most radical gift we can give our audience, and ourselves, is incompleteness. This is the point at which the promenade performance begins in earnest, where the imperative to participate is at its most irresistible: after the show has ended and the audience has dispersed. The onus to complete the work is on them. Isn’t that how we describe what we value in theatre? That it stays with us, that its power is lingering. That it alters our lived experience for some time after, or makes an indelible change. The theatre maker is the one who renders the frame through which the outside world is viewed in the aftermath of the encounter. (And how much more true this would be, incidentally, when the piece never ends, but the audience leaves only when they’re ready to re-enter the world.)
“Theatre can’t change the world,” wrote Michael Billington, approvingly, about My Name is Rachel Corrie, and when it went to the West End, the producers stuck that review up outside the theatre. My habitual answer to this question still feels reliable. Can theatre change the world? We don’t know. Not all the results are in yet. We haven’t made all the theatre. We’ve barely begun to make the theatre that dares to believe that change is possible. Meanwhile the evidence coming the other way is that within two generations, within the scope of current living memory, the world will change again both in and out of relation to our imaginative projections of that change. To have any role to play, theatre must at least respond to and help us live that change. What that means in practice will also change, though it will only arise from a constant dedication to theatre as a distinctive practice, an analogue practice in a culture with an increasingly fragile dependence on the digital. But for theatre not merely to respond to change but to lead and shape it, as well it might, is a challenge to our capacity to want that change, and to testify to that desire.
Attentiveness is a kind of escapism. Not a transcendent relief from the realities of life, but an emergency exit that leads us straight to the beating heart of those realities. Here, in this last minute, one final hard-on. The then Oxford Stage Company produces Sarah Kane’s Cleansed. On the night I see it, in the scene where Grace and her dead brother Graham make love, Garry Collins, the actor playing Graham, takes his clothes off and has an erection. In the midst of all this more-or-less honed performance, a moment of theatre: unsimulated, unironic, the clearest conceivable signal of desire. An escape into the real. // Thanks for being here this evening. Theatre, like the future, streams towards us, endlessly replenished. And here we all are, in a room named after that promise, and the deepest, most culturally urgent question that we face in facing each other in this moment is not, What do we want?, but Can we want? Can we want enough? Can we dare to trust the desire behind the desire? We breathe together through these final moments. My blood speaks to your blood. The dog is ticking.