Oh, man, I miss running a building; it's been a while, but I still miss it. You might not know: for three years between 2001 and 04, I was director of Camden People's Theatre, a terrific 50-odd-seater studio theatre on the London fringe. I was also, mostly, the venue's only permanent paid member of staff: consequently, 'running the building' meant not only programming and curation (the bits I loved most), and creating new work myself from time to time, but also everything through to changing the lightbulbs and sometimes -- I think we could go so far as to say 'frequently' -- trying to fix the toilets. There was an amazing team of volunteers helping out, and a great bunch of people who would look after the box office and front of house, and I loved working with them too. But quite often, I was there, on my own, all day and on into the evening, adding up last week's takings, not-quite teaching myself web design, replacing the toner in the photocopier (the hardest thing of all, by miles), liaising with the council about repairs, talking to a young performance artist over a cup of tea... Running the building. Running the building. Not just running but jumping too -- and, I'll admit, from time to time, a little bit of standing still. (For all that, the memories aren't of board meetings and flooding toilets, of course: they're of covering the theatre floor with turf for a show, and of dancing to Guns 'n' Roses, and painting parties, and watching Sean Bonney read or Bob Cobbing perform in the foyer or Will Gaines duet with Simon H. Fell, and dragging a burnt out motorbike up the fire escape, and eating too much candyfloss, and -- once, just once -- shagging someone right there in the bar after everyone else had gone home. Those were the days my friend.)
I left when the programming stopped being fun, or the fun was being too drowned out by other things; and at a point when there seemed to be a possibility of a freelance life -- or any kind of life -- on the outside. Running a venue on that small but pressureful scale with those kinds of resources is a young person's game (as my immediate successor Jonathan Salisbury pretty quickly found out, I think!) and even at 31 I was getting too old for it: you have to be prepared to be eaten alive by the gig, and it got to the point where I wasn't any more. But in a way it's that feeling that I miss most now: the sense of belonging so wholly and unreservedly to a project that there isn't a part of your waking life (and often your dream-life too!) that isn't up to its neck in it. To get any pleasure out of running a building like CPT you have to know that it's bigger than you, but you also have to know that, with the help and the love of the people around you, you're equal to it. Partly this means that you have to relate to the building as an idea, or as a set of ideas. It has to stand -- at least in your own mind; ideally, in others' too -- for something more than its own continued success (or the fear of its failure), more even than its own distinguishing features in its sector. At best, there is a chain of ideas and commitments and investments that you're so familiar with, you can ask yourself -- as I sometimes did -- "Why the hell am I cleaning a toilet / stuck up a wobbly ladder / untangling audio leads at 11 o'clock on a Friday night?", and, before you've even finished thinking the question, you know that the answer involves a near-instinctive concatenation of 'because's that ends with the most joyous, life-enhancing hatred of capitalism, and with an absolute certainty that theatre, at its best, can radically and irreversibly change the ways in which we can imagine being able to live together. I still think those things, of course, and I'm not unglad not to be obliged to do those crappier jobs any more, but there's no doubt in my mind that a building can greatly help articulate -- or at least limn -- those loftier idea(l)s, provide them with a form, a narrative, a flow, and most importantly a centre. Even in the margin of the margins, a centre. Put simply: a way of sharing the love -- with friends, and with strangers, alike.
True, there aren't a lot of venues that I necessarily have my eye on -- the work I love most has, at the moment, no really satisfactory base; BAC probably gets closest, but I can't seem to get any closer to it as an idea -- but, oh man, I'd love to be running a building again: to be able to stand -- and speak -- for more than just my own buffeted self as one weeny artist among thousands. I was thinking about this a lot today following Michael Billington's rather brilliant Guardian blog post about the importance of a building (or, as he later qualified it, probably correctly: "permanent institutions" -- though that's hardly a phrase to make the blood go round one's body any faster) in helping directors to develop and describe a distinctive vision, not only for their work but for our work, together. Billington's post is occasioned by the announcement today that Michael Grandage is to leave the Donmar after nine years. I've less-than-zero interest in the Donmar, but Grandage seems to me to really know how to run a building: to say it's an artform in itself is not merely, or not only, a fanciful gesture of unfocused critical largesse.
We're in Bristol this week with The Author and the feeling around the Theatre Royal could hardly be more different to how it's been in recent years; I talked to a young guy called Jack tonight who's been involved with the theatre since he was eight years old and he enthusiastically confirmed my sense that what's emerging under the leadership of Tom Morris and Emma Stenning is a confident, articulate building, a complex of ideas and values that seem both tantalisingly emergent and, from the get-go, thrillingly clear. (Interesting to hear Tom, in Thursday's post-show discussion, begin a sentence with something like: "In this building, what we say is...") To rehearse a phrase I'll wear out soon if I'm not careful: buildings can be what we use to think with. Where that notion meets the (hopelessly old-fashioned and/or hopelessly futuristic) idea of civic significance -- in other words, what it might mean to be a public building, how public buildings and their users can learn from and be shaped by each other -- is right where I'm at on this topic. I've repeatedly talked in recent years about how, despite (or perhaps partly because of) all the perfectly proper excitement around theatre-outside-theatres, the site-specific, the peripatetic, the home-delivery, the guerilla and the wholly imaginary, what excites me most right now is to think about what theatre buildings might be. What else they might be. Not in addition to being theatres (I'm not talking about that route whereby our public libraries have gradually almost entirely transmogrified into internet cafes with a few books lined up for decorative purposes), but by dint of their responsibility to be theatres, to be fully theatres: to be buildings that can respond, sensitively and nurturingly and challengingly and ambitiously, to an artform that wants to be all the things that buildings, and especially big theatre buildings, often can't be: fleet, acute, unorthodox, dissident, liquid, ticklish, erotic, hopeful.
Anyway. Here's something I'm thinking about: and I'm trying to use the idea of the theatre building to help me think about it: so maybe you might like to frame your reading of the following account in the same way.
After a calm and pleasant start to the week at Bristol Old Vic on Tuesday and Wednesday -- the only slight wrinkle was the seating banks having to be further apart than usual due to special fire regulations in such an old building -- The Author has had a much more turbulent pair of outings in the last couple of days. The more recent disruption was the simpler, or at any rate the less extraordinary: someone in the audience interrupted me during my last big speech to raise a question about a scene we'd done a few minutes earlier: she was obviously very angry about it and wanted to ask us, as actors, how we felt about it. It is a scene that often makes people very angry, and in a sense they should be angry about what happens in it; it has quite often happened that people protest about it at the time, but it's unique in my experience for someone to voice their anger about it at a later point. Always we, or I guess I had better say I, have mixed feelings about these moments. It is fantastic that people feel empowered to speak, and the play is enlarged by having those additional voices in it. It is also a shame that the momentum of the play, the tension that has built in the room, is disrupted, because those elements are doing so much work. Yesterday's speaker presented us with a binary: either we wanted an audience that was engaged with the ethics of the piece (and would raise their voices, it is implied), or we actually, deceitfully, wanted a passive audience. Which was it?, was the unspoken question at the end of that thought. Well, I understand the point and where it's coming from, but of course, it's not an adequate binary. We do not want a passive audience, we do very much want an engaged audience, but one aspect of their engagement might be a sensitivity to the fact that they are participating in a constructed encounter, and an appreciation that we can give our best account of the play when the construct is allowed to stand for what it is, and assessed in that light. It was rightly said, by another audience member at a later moment, that we had been asking everyone questions all the way through, for them to answer; it was not quite right that, as he suggested, the woman's interruption had therefore been wholly appropriate. We do ask questions directly of the audience -- I do, especially -- and we are glad to have answers offered; in every case, though, the spoken participation of the audience is solicited by us, in particular instances. Someone who answers out loud a question that has been asked, either specifically of them or of the room as a whole, is not engaged in the same act as someone who speaks up of their own volition in the middle of a speech which has an argument and integrity of its own which their intervention will destroy. I revere, to some extent at least, the indignation that led to the woman speaking up -- and as I said to her, I'm sure many people were feeling the same, and that was a good thing; but at the same time it was, I thought, an unfortunate response to a clearly constructed event. -- I don't mean that how it's constructed is clear, I mean that it's clear that it is constructed. An odd parallel might be drawn with pantomime, which clearly signals that it welcomes certain kinds of participation at certain moments: there is call-and-response, there is booing the villain, there is singing along, and all of this helps to create a lively and engaging encounter. But it is still possible to say that if you boo and hiss heartily at the Fairy Godmother while she's singing "When You Wish Upon A Star", that is a disruptive act, for good or ill, and it may reasonably be thought insensitive.
As ever in these moments, the most awkward thing to deal with is the sudden break of matrix. Our questioner yesterday, wanting to talk to us as actors, was requiring that the play be suspended. "I want an answer," she said: but giving direct answers is the one thing we most want to avoid. Partly -- and Tim said this to her, but she did not find it satisfactory -- the play is already answering the question -- her question and probably almost all the questions in all the heads and hearts of all the people in the room at that moment; to have a commentary on the play demanded of us was to treat both the play itself and its audience as inadequate. (Sadly, of course, once the play is interrupted, it does become less adequate, less able to do the work it sets out to do.) But also we prefer not to answer because, for all the flickering of real and not-real that the play is conceptually fascinated by, in the moments where we are speaking to the audience we are as actors not identical with the characters we play. I suppose because of the arrangement of the seating and our immersion within the audience, it's hard for people to remember that we are actors playing characters; that in what we say, we speak for the play, not for ourselves. This argument boils down to a redundant truism: it's a play, therefore it behaves like a play. In other words: there is a play script, and a play script is its own fourth wall. There is an extent to which this play embeds within its own operations a little room in which we can respond, negotiate, make more direct connections with our audience. But there being a script, there is an obvious limit to these latitudes. The Author begins to give rise to difficult and uncomfortable thoughts and sensations within minutes, seconds even, of its starting -- our earliest walk-out was less than five minutes in; if we made ourselves as actors wholly available for comment, we would never yet have got past page four. (I was saying to someone earlier: if we invited back all the most vocal dissenters from the last few weeks of performances, and did the show they wanted it to be, it would be total, unmitigated shit, and they would hate us and each other even more.)
Look: for sure, The Author is not business as usual: it is blurry, flickery, it is interested in these ambiguities and borderlines and it wants you to feel engaged with them too. At the same time, it is limited, it is constrained -- to wonderfully, powerfully productive effect, in my opinion -- by being a constructed event, a play rather than a discussion group. The authority of the author is one of the most complex and potentially difficult aspects of The Author. (See, we gave you a clue, ha ha.) We are all the victims of that authority, and the parameters of our consent to that near-tyranny are excruciatingly hard to discern. And yet all the time the play treats you with gentleness and care and part of the care it extends to you is to take you, and itself, seriously. Because that care is real, not simulated, and thoughtful, not sensational, the play does not have 'the answer', nor does it expect you to have the answer, the tools for a resolution.
But back to the point of telling this story, which is the fascinating paradox at the heart of that person's intervention. She was able to separate us as actors out from our characters, to the extent that she was quite specific about wanting to challenge us as actors; at the same time, she was unable to treat the play as a constructed fiction, as a crafted piece with an argument, and her discomfort seemed to be located in the idea that as actors we had failed to reject the words we were being asked to say, we had played a distressing scene as if we were insensitive to everything that was appalling about it. We had not signalled, somehow, from the midst of the play, from the thick of it, that we disagreed with it. (Not for the first time in relation to The Author I remember that sublime Derek & Clive sketch, 'The Critics' [NSFW] -- good title for a sequel, maybe? -- which ends with Dudley Moore insisting: "I do not want to say all of the things that I have just fucking said.") By rearranging the furniture as we do, perhaps, or by using our real names, or simply by sitting among our audience, it seems we had forfeited -- for this member of the audience -- any claim to the privileges of art, or fiction. And perhaps it was by relinquishing that claim to the considerable extent that we do that we drew indignant attention to the artifices that remain. -- I do want to reiterate that we have no problem with people talking back to us, we do "ask for it"; equally though it is true that we ask for it on quite particular terms, and those who not only listen but are in a position actually to hear what we're doing will hear when those opportunities to speak out are present, and when, for the sake of the art (which is what, after all, we came to do, and what everyone paid to see), those opportunities are not present in the same way; what will add to the breathable air in the room, and what will use up oxygen.
The incident the day before, on Thursday, was far more disruptive, but can probably be more concisely explained. It is not uncheard of for people to feel physically as well as emotionally or psychologically uncomfortable or overwhelmed in The Author, even in large open relatively well-ventilated spaces like the Studio at the Theatre Royal. When I saw the play for the first time at the Royal Court my companion for the evening felt faint quite early on and had to leave. There's a moment about fifteen minutes in where the lights go down for the first time and on this occasion in Bristol, somebody in the front row of the bank opposite started to feel unwell at this point; he happened to be sitting next to one of the ushers, and said to him, "I'm sorry, I've got to leave." He stood up to go, and the usher accompanied him; we watched him walk quite unsteadily for a few paces, and then, when he was out of my sight round the corner of the seating bank on the way to the exit, he seems to have fainted, apparently hitting his head against the wall at some point, and ended up lying on the floor, not unconscious, apparently awake, but presumably disoriented, looking up at the ceiling.
At this point, things get interesting. For reasons that will perhaps be somewhat understandable to anyone who's seen the play, the usher, seeing that the man had not lost consciousness, began to suspect that this was all part of the play, and resumed his seat. Esther, the actor who was about to speak, in the end got out of her seat and walked over to the man, saying to the usher something like: "We need to do something about this, this isn't part of the show." Lights came up again, Tim went to assist, the show stopped. There was quite a lot of excited chatter, particularly from a large group of students who were in attendance, some of whom had already become a bit wound up simply by the lights going down. After a few moments Tim made an announcement to the audience, explaining what was going on, asking for quiet in the audience while paramedics attended, and reiterating that what was occurring was not part of the play.
It was clear even at this stage that, on the whole, the audience did not believe, despite Tim's announcement, that this was not part of the plan. We were just messing with their heads. At best, many did not know what to think; they certainly weren't prepared to take at face value what Tim had said. The woman sitting to my left, we had already ascertained during an interaction in the opening scene, was a doctor. "Do you think they need assistance?" she asked me; "I imagine they may do," I said, unsure as to what was going on -- and she laughed, and remained in her seat, obviously still thinking that this was all an unnerving fiction. It occurred to me later that probably there were people in the audience who must have been thinking that the doctor, in turn, was a plant -- especially when, eventually, she got up to go and help. Even when she returned to her seat she didn't seem entirely convinced.
The man was OK -- in fact in the end, before he left, he stood up and told everyone he was OK, which probably didn't help with the clarity of the situation for the audience. And of course, even after the play resumed, everyone seemed to be watching it through the wildly unhelpful lens of this extraordinary incident and the questions it had set in motion for them. One woman later reported having heard Esther's first line after resuming -- "Has anyone here ever marched against the war?" as "Has anyone here ever marched into a wall?". And there was further evidence that the whole thing was a put-up job when towards the end of the play it was revealed that, within the narrative, my character had had to be carried out of a theatre performance he was attending because he had had some kind of fit induced by flashing lights.
It so happened, weirdly, that this was the evening of our post-show discussion, and the conversation was understandably, though regrettably, dominated by questions and comments around the incident itself and arising from the state of mind that that left audience members in, a headspace in which they were profoundly unsure about what they could trust and how far we were going to go in confusing and upsetting them. I had old friends in, extremely smart and supportive friends, who were sorry that discussion of the fainting guy had overshadowed the more interesting conversation to be had about other matters arising; nonetheless, I found them afterwards in an astonishingly paranoid state. For them, it seemed, the piece had become much more present as a game, not just a slippery fiction but one in which the rules of engagement were hopelessly (and perhaps abusively -- my inference) unclear. In this state, any detail may become distortingly magnified simply because it seems to confirm one pattern rather than another. Tom Morris, conducting the discussion, concluded by asking everyone not to worry about the show they didn't see, but to continue to think about the show they had seen, which was still, despite everything, The Author. It was exactly the right thing to say in the circumstances, but I kind of wonder, especially having spent a few minutes talking to those friends, whether it was entirely correct. The play itself had apparently receded in my friends' experience -- it had become something more sensational, a bit of a ride, more like (I guess -- I haven't seen it) the Lyric's very popular Ghost Stories -- which, frustratingly, seemed to lead them to underestimate the acuity of Tim's thinking and understanding and the skill of his craftsmanship in The Author -- which, after all this time, is actually the aspect that continues to excite me and inspire me the most: you know, it is the most unbelievably well-made play!
Anyway, so here we are. Two nights, two disruptions, both regrettable in different ways, and oddly mirroring each other. On Thursday, we couldn't get the audience to believe that something real wasn't artificial; on Friday, we were interrupted by someone who wouldn't accept that an aspect of the play's artifice wasn't indicative of a present reality -- to the extent that Tim was forced to state categorically that The Author is a work of fiction.
I'm sure this happens all the time, to greater or lesser degrees and with more or less significant consequences. I suspect at a very low micro-level it is happening absolutely constantly, in everyone's theatrical experience: a kind of background radiation produced by the flickering tension between constructed and unconstructed realities, the interference between signals of artifice and -- as it were -- signs of life. It is obvious that this is a state of emergency, or emergence rather, that is not unique to theatre but is quite particular to theatre's distinction as a medium, and while The Author may be using these conditions in a critical and (seriously) provocative way, they must surely obtain even in the drabbest fourth-wall creakfest or Robert Wilson's latest staged fragrance advert or whatever.
So it follows that among the needs we might have in a dedicated theatre building would be a space or series of spaces that support and enhance our perception of this quintessentially theatrical situation. I suppose what I find most indicative and most alarming in the experiences of the last two days is that an audience was generally unable to accept that an actor saying "This is not part of the show" was telling the truth. Now, as I think I've explained, the context in which this happened was difficult: The Author had already established a formally playful and line-blurring relationship with everyone. But I do wonder to what extent this is only about The Author and to what extent it relates to what we think theatres are, theatre buildings I mean -- what notions, what behavioural systems, become suspended because we are "at the theatre"; and so I wonder in turn what is made impossible, perhaps, what relationships and behaviours are inaccessible and what kinds of art, what kinds of constructed event, become unmakeable, or unthinkable, as a consequence.
This is not a fully-formed thought, I'm not guiding us all towards some penetrating analysis of this, I've only just got as far as the wondering stage, but I thought I'd show my workings anyway. What if theatre buildings can help us (as directors, say) describe a vision larger than ourselves, a vision of society, of artistic and ethical values in a civic context, only for that vision to be interfered with, its articulation scuffed or even outright thwarted, by the associations we make between theatre buildings and a deleterious complication of face value, an assumption of a consequential discontinuity between the zone of the theatre and the zone of the world outside? And if there is such an unhelpful mismatch between these two conceptions of what theatre buildings can even hope to represent, how might we re-engineer the theatre building itself so that it could cause this mismatch to be alleviated: or at least, to be maximally productive?
There used to be a cliche of freedom-of-speech debates about the permissibility within law of causing alarm and potentially injurious panic by shouting 'FIRE!' in a crowded theatre. (I have the character of Edward Lear do it -- for complex reasons, but also, essentially, for the hell of it -- at the very end of my play King Pelican.) What I find I'm worrying about this evening is how close we came to shouting 'FIRE!' in a sold-out auditorium at Bristol Old Vic, only to be greeted by an ironic smirk -- "Yeah, right! We're not falling for that old chestnut!" To be in a space -- both physically and semiotically -- in which the word "FIRE!" cannot be heard for itself is, I would suggest, a much more potentially disturbing curb on the freedom of speech, the freedom to actually say something. One might say that the only thing at fault here is an irresponsible act by the makers and performers of The Author which, in its playfulness and ambiguity, made it impossible for an audience to accept anything it was being shown and told without suspicion. But we can't make plays without playfulness, can we? And we can't make much interesting art without ambiguity. At any rate, what interests me is the question I came in with. How can a theatre building help us to really see and to really hear each other? To understand our own role, our own responsibility, in the making of theatre in each moment: to be discerning: to know when to speak, when to wait, when to act, when to stop acting. How can a theatre building be more like the place that we all know to go to when we want to tell each other the truth, in the knowledge that that truth might take a thousand forms? Sometimes it's wrapped up in a dramatic story of a big old building burning down; sometimes the theatre really is on fire.