Monday, February 21, 2011

L.A. Diary #2

Photo: Robert Lachman / Los Angeles Times

Morning of the first of two days off from The Author at the Kirk Douglas Theatre: feels like a good landing stage from which to try and say a little about how it is.

From fairly early on, we -- or I, at least -- developed kind of a pat answer to a question that was often posed as The Author toured the UK and Europe. No, no, I'd say, the show is more different from night to night in the same place, than it is from place to place. Sure, a particular auditorium might shape responses -- the sense of heat and claustrophobic subterranean confinement at Traverse 2 in Edinburgh, the cool low-key informality of cushion-strewn Korjaamo in Helsinki, the perkiness of the Royal Exchange studio in Manchester -- but everywhere we went, any performance that seemed to indicate a local character or quality of audience engagement would almost always be superseded by one that confounded that picture.

To a degree that remains true of Los Angeles -- certainly we never know what's going to happen from night to night, not least because the play itself is such an amplification chamber for variation. But also there are some clear patterns emerging which are making our L.A. experience quite distinctive: and, actually (and this must be read please with no pejorative or defensive overtone), the most difficult time I think we've had with the show since Edinburgh. Difficult in a good way? I'm not sure. Certainly we can cope with a lot more now: experience has made us more robust than we were last summer, we have a level of deep-seated (and hard-won!) confidence in the work and in each other; and we haven't (...yet...) had to deal with the kind of outright furious hostility that quite frequently emerged in Edinburgh.

Quite the reverse, in fact, and what's funny is, that's kind of what's difficult. On the whole, people here are generous, up-for-it. More than that, they seem weirdly prepared. They may be a little surprised by the set-up they've walked in to but they're happy for us to bring it on. Almost nobody shrinks away from the idea that they may be spoken directly to, and possibly asked to respond. They'll hold gaze, they'll accept the offer. In a way, I think the format of The Author is one that's very recognizable to people here: it describes a social logic with which they're already very comfortable. Without all the organizing signs of power and authority and prestige that blare out of a standard theatrical space, audiences in other places have felt adrift, exposed; here, a model of equality of access and participation is already running in the background. Essentially, everybody here is already the star of their own show, which they're perfoming in 24/7. From the old Latino guys who run the corner shop across the street from the apartments, to the young girl at the frozen yogurt counter, to the starchy middle-aged ladies waiting in the lobby for us after the show, everybody seems to feel at home with the idea that they have as much right to be heard as anybody else. When The Author appears to make that offer to them, not only do they not wig out, they barely blink or pause to take a breath. They're ready with their own story, their opinion, their wisecrack.

None of this -- honestly, none of it -- is a bad or difficult thing in itself. It's kind of beautiful. It's exhausting sometimes, both in and out of the show, but there's something lovely about it, something admirable. What makes it difficult for us, I'd say, is not the audience's readiness to join in, but what happens to their receptive experience when reluctance or discomfort isn't a part of it. They may feel confusion, but they don't feel doubt. Their confusion is not disturbing to them and so it doesn't produce reticence: and I think doubt and disturbance and reticence are a crucial and significant -- I mean, signifying -- part of the conceptual world that this piece is trying to create for itself.

People here are really unguarded. That's the word: unguarded. They're ready to trust you, ready to tell you about themselves, ready to open up, join in, stand up and be counted. Previously, I've felt that this is a play that punishes unguardedness: when I've had doubts myself about The Author -- especially early in my experience of working with it, when we were in choppy waters at the Traverse and quite often people were clearly distressed and angered by it -- those doubts were often about the ways in which, as a play, it could punish those who, for whatever reason, didn't or couldn't keep up with what it was doing, which would certainly include those who were too ready to trust it. This is a play that deplores in its every action the idea of ever taking the mediated world at face value, and requires -- not just invites, but demands -- a resistance to that kind of passive, uncritical acceptance of what's coming across. 

Early on my character reads aloud a (real) newspaper cutting, from the London Lite, about the play we're all about to see, which describes it as "interactive". This is the only place in the world where The Author uses that word about itself -- it's never been described as interactive in any of the marketing or promotional materials that the production itself has released. (It's routinely described as "interactive" by others.) In using the word that one time, the play speaks with extremely forked tongue: it really wants you to hear that the description comes from the London Lite, which, even to an unfamiliar overseas audience, ought to sound like it's probably not a dependable authority on theatre criticism. It wants you to hear the word "interactive" and, rather than straight away mapping that adjective onto the chattiness of these first couple of minutes of the show and the seating arrangement and so on, to be a little guarded. It wants you to think: what does, what might, interactive actually mean in this situation? Those who are asking that question will quickly recognize how the play offers no more than a faulty simulation of the kind of "interactivity" that the London Lite in its dumb shorthand is describing. They might even come round to connecting the observation back to the question: that the interactivity the play requires is exactly this kind of carefully analytical treatment of the experience.

We're very used to having conversations after each performance with whoever's stuck around in need of that kind of discussion: mostly these revolve around maybe half a dozen questions that audiences often, understandably, get snagged on. But here, for the first time, the other day I found myself having to explain the plot to someone who'd absolutely not been able to follow the series of events that the piece narrates. I think that -- more here than anywhere -- there is a tendency to walk in to the room and immediately go: Ah, I know what this is, this is a Happening -- and to seek to engage with nothing more than the novelty of it. Of course nothing, actually, could be further from the truth: it's a very tightly controlled and authored play (as of course most of the first Happenings were, but that's another discussion). The form is crucial, the form is the deepest expression of both the content of the piece and its argument, but the novelty of that form is the least interesting and nourishing part of the proposition.

It's true on the one hand that the piece requires rigorous, careful watching, the friction of reticence and doubt, a resistance to simple going-with-the-flow: and that it does this partly because that's what it's suggesting we need to be better at as spectators and consumers in all mediated contexts. On the other hand, I think I feel increasingly unsure about the idea that The Author makes special demands due to its unique formation. On the contrary, The Author requires the same things of an audience as any production will that cares at all about its relationship with those who attend. It needs you to be asking yourself, calmly but constantly, how best you can help to hold the work. It needs you to want to know what your responsibilities are to the work of which you've consented to be a part, and to handle those responsibilities with care. It requires the same things of its audience as any play: but it's simply -- by dint of being a real theatre work, a distinctively theatrical construction -- more dependent on them, and more likely to be harmed (and, finally, harmful) if they're not present.

It's so odd that, especially here in L.A., it's often the friendliest, most generous, most comfortably gregarious -- the most socially invested -- people who are least likely to give the play what it needs in order to be most fully heard. But then, the more time I spend here, the more it becomes apparent that in order for L.A. to function at all, there has to be an intense investment in the performance of friendliness and social valency, coupled with an actual deep commitment to self-sufficiency: which taken together can support a mode of functionality that can get by on a liberal respect for others' feelings and a concerted disengagement from any interrogation of the premises on which these behavioural networks are founded.

I keep thinking about something that happened the last time I was here, back in 1998. I sat in on an English class, a poetry class. And I've never forgotten the oddness of it. Poetry was being discussed and appraised only and entirely in emotional terms -- actually, not even emotion, but 'feeling'. So: a poem should make you feel things, and the feelings that the poem records or initiates should feel appropriate and recognizable; like, this poem is a sad poem about a cat dying and when my cat died I was sad and this poem reminds me of that so it is a successful poem. At one point I tried to open up a discussion about how, technically, one (not bad) poem the class was studying was achieving its induction of the 'feelings' that everyone was identifying: it was doing something interesting in the way it used rhyme and call-backs in a nicely productive tension with its own scale as a lyric. That technical discussion was simply not available to be had.

Now, this is all very unfair, I know (and this is why it was useful last year when every place we went to seemed to elude typification): there are fine scholars in Los Angeles and there are profoundly engaged anticapitalist thinkers and there are theatre critics who are able to do more than simply review the apparently salient points of a production and blurt something shapeless about their own experience. But the people who've come to see The Author over the past week have been coming out of a culture quite different than anything we've confronted before: and it's both sort of beautiful, often, and, just as often, disheartening and frustrating. An uphill battle in the face of the most kindly-meant unwillingness to distrust us.


Anonymous said...

Mr Chris,
Good work. Double good work.
Sue MacLaine

a smith said...

Wow. Thanks Chris. A great read. Almost, almost as good as being there with you. Lovely to read something from you. Something lovely and considered. Thank you. I am thinking of you all lots out there. Much love to all, a x

a smith said...
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oxytocin said...

I saw The Author at the Traverse in Edinburgh during the festival, when I was performing there myself. One thing I actually thought about at the time was what would happen if you took the play to America (I don't think your tour dates had been released yet).

Playing on old stereotypes of nationality, the British are quite reserved and Americans less so. When faced with 'interactive' theatre, I think it can be said (in quite a general way) that we are less likely to rock the boat. But it's not all about the interjections the audience makes, or one audience member causing a scene (ha), but about the overall atmosphere in the theatre. I for one, was completely unsettled by the performance of The Author. I was hugely intrigued, having never seen theatre like it; I felt like I was going to faint in Tim's monologue; I found the lighting disturbing and disorientating - but despite all of these factors, I wouldn't have left the theatre. Whether that's because I'm a sheep or not is debatable.
I feel it's more to do with a desire to blend in, to not cause a fuss, to not obstruct anyone's view on your way out - call it my ingrained British sense of courtesy.

I hate to draw so obviously and crudely on cultural stereotypes, but whenever I've been to America, I've become quickly aware of how much warmer Americans are, how much smilier and easier to talk to. This would surely make theatre in the States a different experience, and would particularly have an effect on a play such as The Author, which, without traditional end-on seating in a proscenium theatre, sort of breaks down convention and establishes a dialogue with (and within) the audience. It doesn't surprise me that American audiences relish this dialogue. I can imagine a few American friends of mine quite happily settling down to a stonking chat in a theatre when addressed by a man who is clearly an actor, whereas I would feel very conscious (and did feel very conscious, when I saw the production) of not upsetting the atmosphere that the actors were trying to create. I wanted to help the actors along, answer when necessary, but leave a staring pause when it seemed that an answer wouldn't necessarily be useful to the progress of the play. I found myself thinking, constantly, about what was being asked of me.

Perhaps I'm being too crude here in my analysis of different audiences. I want to ask: what's so exhausting about it? Having to accept graciously the audience's response to your initiated dialogue, and then feeling obligated to steer the direction of that dialogue? Do you feel guilty that you can't let this dialogue flow, and move somewhere of its own accord? The Author purports to give its audience a voice, or more of a voice - where do the boundaries begin and end? And are you having to shift those boundaries for different cultural audiences?

I'm not sure these questions are quite adequate for what I'm trying to say.

Is there a constant rehearsal process for the play, or once you're touring have you ceased to work on it? Are you working with the play again, in order to adapt it to this new 'uphill battle' you're facing? (And will you be returning to the Festival Fringe this summer?!)

I'm not sure I've articulated myself well, or even interestingly. Basically, I'd like to say that I do really enjoy your blog; it's beautifully written and poses some really thought-provoking ideas. I'm an English student, and am heavily involved in theatre in as many ways as I can be, so this blog sort of hits the nail on the head in terms of stimulating and engaging reading. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I was the guy sitting to your left on last Saturday's matinee. I was completely engrossed in the performance, and have been thinking about it ever since.

Kudos to you and your fellow actors for giving this often jaded theater-goer something completely fresh and different.