Here‘s the frequently wise and always unashamedly clever (and why should he be, there’s nothing wrong with it) Chris Goode gossiping about Robert Wilson; and somewhere in that lengthy post you’ll see him touch on formalism in theatre-making. He and Big Bob, he says, are the only people he can think of “who will be able to tell you what the 55th or the 74th minute of a piece will feel like long before it’s cast or its narrative is developed or its surface scenario is even conceived.”
Now, Goodie is clearly an exceptionally precise man (and I would challenge the 55th-minute thing only so far as to invite him to admit to being a little less specific than that) but there’s an anxiety here about the apparently slipshod conception of our theatre-makers (who I’m calling ‘writers’, even though some of them use different notation to others) – do they know what they’re doing at all? Did they really believe that workshop where someone said that once you come up with the characters and the scenario then it just all comes out? Clearly not, I think we can all agree when we watch a creaky plot device turning, or feel an awkward gear-change as we lurch into a sad bit. And let’s be honest, these are very often considerably clumsier in the borderline performance-art-world shows than in the well-made new plays. Possibly this is because they don’t care as much, or possibly because the experimentalists are often younger and callower than the extensively-workshopped playwrights.
We make plots and we make plans. We know what the arc of the piece is – and ‘what it will feel like’ is something we all hope we’ll be able to predict. Perhaps because Chris is the director of his own work, he can be more confident that the emphases won’t be reordered by another hand. I’m interested in how this plays off against the emergent demands of the narrative. If the narrative suggests that that 55th-minute elation might sit up and beg a little higher if it happened in the 63rd minute, because of the inspiring surge that is newly available for the 51st minute, then what’s wrong with that? Once you start getting dirty with the plausibility of the relationships or the realisation that there’s room for a really excellent joke there, then your pre-conception becomes just a framework. But isn’t it interesting to think about what happens if you did refuse to compromise that rigid plotting of emotional buttons; it can act as a demand on you to find a better, more efficient, possibly more inventive way of telling that preceding bit of story. Perhaps your original time/feeling map could be a benevolent tyrant.
I do think that there should be a way for that formal conception to be the governor of a theatre piece. A way that the audience can approach a piece from a number of different directions, to be able to invest in it emotionally on a level that is separate from the advancing narrative. If you look at a sculpture or a painting, then you can choose your access point – it might be form, colour, texture or explicit or implicit narrative content; you can fly away on your peripheral associations and return, safe in the knowledge that the object will still be there and constant.
The existence of time, and our expectation that things will change causally over the course of it, means that it’s harder in theatre to maintain a shape and allow an audience that sort of freedom. But while the narrative (or some sort of narrative) unfolds, perhaps we could be concentrating on what remains solid within the pieces that we’re writing or making; what it is that is revealed and explored by the action. I suspect what this usually is is the ‘writer’s’ worldview or set of values; it will be a conception of a person, a place, a time, or a concept. Isn’t this what happens in those historical verbatim pieces like Permanent Way or the Tricycle works; we know what events the unfolding narrative will deliver; what we’re watching is how they are deployed to reveal a (permanent) perspective/artefact.
So it’s not just the crazy experimentalists or the impenetrable avant-gardists who are know that it’s not just the story that counts, it’s what you put in it; and I think the cannier and more experienced of the orthodox playwrights are as aware as Chris that they need to know how it will feel to watch various moments in their work for it to have real impact. Let’s not pretend this is some ideological divide; it’s a divide about which audience you want to be valued by.