Archive for the ‘experimentalism’ Category

Lyn Gardner continues to be instinctively right, it seems to me, in her latest guardian blog about small-scale shows, even if I’m not sure she commits fully to her argument.

I also saw Internal at BAC during Burst – it’s a piece for five audience (and five performers) that begins with parallel one-on-ones before opening out into a circle of ten. It certainly raises the stakes for the audience. When I came out of the performance I was thrilled and adrenalised.

Lyn was savvy enough to lie to the Belgians. I foolishly felt for them and opened up, assuming that the success of the show would depend on our genuine and honest participation. More fool me, it seems. By halfway through, it’s clear that your partner-performerTrust Betrayed isn’t engaging equally with the audience member. They’re playing a part, revealing nothing – and then they began to hold the information I’d given over me, releasing some of it as entertainment for the other audience members. Betrayal. The thrill of the show, I realised later, was fear and a bit of self-disgust. I was in jeopardy.

It seems to me that a successful intimate performance is about trust – and liberating the audience member to feel supported enough to express themselves and behave unselfconsciously. Performers forget how difficult and exposing this is for normal people. The Ontroerend Goed performers seemed to enjoy betraying this trust. Now, you could argue that they provoked a strong response, and that by conjuring one, they had done more than Fat Pig or Marguerite are likely to manage. But I found it reminiscent of those shabby, cowardly reality TV/comedy programmes where unsuspecting members of the public are ridiculed by Dom Joly or Marc Wootton. The performers, prepared and rehearsed, run no personal risk. The victims have no chance – they’re damned if they believe. It’s a culture that rewards deceit and defensiveness, and punishes openness and trust. And it doesn’t even do what an impactful stage performance does, where an actor’s emotional nakedness and commitment in enacting a fiction can humble an audience, sometimes into their own tears. Lots of intimate shows seem to be cooked up by theatre-makers who are focused only on making the experience more intense for an audience. I didn’t have the chance to experience Ontroerend Goed’s (more lauded) one-person show The Smile Off Your Face – it sounds like it handled the trust relationship more sensitively. But there’s more to experience than intensity.

Let me know if you’ve been to any intimate performances that allowed you to feel safe and able to respond openly.

Meanwhile I was lucky enough to catch one of the performances of the Red Ladies at the ICA, and it seemed to me again that Suzy Willson is among our most under-rated and consistently extraordinary theatre-makers. Flashier, more marketing-minded companies like Punchdrunk and Shunt pick up the coverage, but her work with composer Paul Clark as the Clod Ensemble is both more interesting and more consistent. She’s understated and it’s often a long time between shows – but what shows. The thrillingly simple and minimal Silver Swan up in Edinburgh a few years ago. And the development of Red Ladies over the last couple of years has been about the only serious contribution to a debate people sometimes try to have about Public Theatre. There was an event about this at the Tricycle a few years back, but the Red Room railroaded it into being about political theatre, which is a very different (and less amazing) thing. I’m constantly seeing political theatre, and it’s just the same as (supposedly) non-political theatre: someone banging on about their point of view and why it’s right. Public theatre is something quite different and again, like the successful intimate theatre, it’s respect for the consideration of the audience that makes it work. The Red Ladies work excitingly and provocatively as a street theatre intervention, and in the theatre show they unfold layer after layer of meaning, making a seamless transition between theatre, movement and music. Willson’s talking about protest, about group identities, and about women, and she’s a wonderfully assured and witty guide. The non-narrative structure of Red Ladies – it’s structured like a piece of music – allows the audience to wander around the themes. the beautifully individualised chorus movement makes sure you never need to be bored. And whenever it threatens to veersign reading \'Truth is Free\' into taking itself too seriously, there’s a moment of beauty, droll self-knowledge or fierce energy to shift your preconceptions. As Lady 3 says at the beginning: “Whatever you think we are.. We’re not that.” It seems to me to be totally public. Everything about it celebrates the individual in the crowd – both as herself and as someone in a society. It champions some specific values, sure enough, but it explicitly articulates those values by showing you variations (and sometimes abstentions) from them. Consensual, complex, grown-up politics, not soapbox posturing. What’s inconceivable is that it does 3 performances on wet spring weekdays. Is that all the appetite our city has for this kind of work?

Breath bated to see if the media decide to shit on or pay attention to Chris Goode‘s experiments at the Gate… I’m going later in the run but I guess it could go either way. Maybe we’ll get one of Billington’s two-column non-reviews explaining what he thinks is the right way to have directed it.

Incidentally, I noticed that Lyn’s piece about intimate shows received almost no comments (I’m sure this will have fewer). I assume that’s because these tiny shows are self-evidently peripheral to the real theatre that everyone sees – and who cares if a few tossers in London see some pretentious art shows? This may be true (and it’s certainly the case that lots of emerging ‘artists’ make work for a disappointingly homogeneous audience) but I hope the relation to the Red Ladies (and onwards perhaps) suggests how the aesthetic values people pioneer in these experiments will underpin all their subsequent work. If you start out despising the audience, what hope have you got when you’re generating product?


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So I’ve been away (or busy maybe) for a bit and overwhelmed by the consistent requests for me to return to the blog. Not really, you’re all very discreet.

So I had a look around to see what’s rousing folk in the london theatre blog world. Goodness. Everyone loves/hates Attempts on Her Life, and quite a few people are excited by Anthony Neilson asking playwrights to be less boring and pretentious. Neilson is right to feel a bit I told you so about it, isn’t he? – he’s been being thrilling, imaginative and unpretentious for ages even when it wasn’t that fashionable. In fact his plays often seem a bit wilfully controversialist – it’s his determination not to let them be flabby that have saved them. I bet his old mucker Lisa Goldman wishes she had a few more like him to programme into Soho. I take a bit of an issue with his dislike of the pretentious though. You absolutely need to balance it and be tough on yourself, but pretentiousness has a lot to offer, in that it represents our urge to try out being something we’re not. Which has a good pedigree in the theatre community. So if I (or Chris Goode) pretend to the assurance of Robert Wilson in making a piece, it very likely benefits the assurance of the piece – Wilson is an awesome role model in that respect. If we copied his actual style it would be less successful. Shopping and Fucking is a pretentious play because Ravenhill’s pretention to be a voice for the commercialised generation blended well with his hard-working well-made play structuring. It’s not as amazing and pure a source of innovation as those that come from necessity (“the only way to make this show work is to do it underwater/in the air/spoken half in Uzbek”) but it’s undeniably part of the psychology of every theatre maker, who is always pretending/trying to be less like (say) David Hare and more like (say) Anthony Neilson. All our best playwrights and theatre-makers are a bit pretentious. And they’re good enough not to let it get out of hand.

Attempts on Her Life is really part of the same debate. It’s not boring. If you’ve got the balls (apparently unlike some of the walker-outers at the whatsonstage board) then you can fight the deluge of images and struggle to draw your conclusions from Crimp and Mitchell’s uncompromised circus of situations and angles. For what it’s worth, I thought that the permanent presence of the (thrilling) camera work gave it feet of clay. Crimp’s scenarios are about a lot of things, and there were times when the production seemed to filter all of the text’s potential through a limiting lens: I know that we use the media to shape lots of our understanding of life – but it’s not the only way I understand people. It was also hard not to feel that the camera action was clumsy set next to the overwhelmingly detailed (and beautiful) choreography of Waves. That said, I wasn’t much taken with the content of Waves – it was pretty much pure theatre to me – and am much more interested by the content in Attempts. The focus on media gave the text a fierce clarity of purpose which it might not have in some of the more catholic productions – and it seemed conscious of its status as not the only ever production. I think that’s what I like most about Mitchell’s shows now – this is her version and it’s not the end of the story. Clearly Hytner has made a good choice in continuing to invite her back to be a standard bearer for intelligent experiment in his programme. How great to be watching the rock band section thrash away in the bland old Lyttelton, with memories of the (equally effective but totally different) lush underscoring of Therese Raquin still in memory. I’m suspicious of encore’s effort to turn it into a polarised fight between the backward lithic critics and the fiery knights of progress – it’s only a show, it’s got problems – but I was much more appalled by the people who seem to be offended by it. Blimey, fogeys, it’s a national theatre, not just yours. I mean, sure, be offended by Jerry Springer if you don’t believe in freedom of speech and creativity (and expose yourself as a censor). But what’s to be offended by in a play that has a good go at discussing perception and reality, in a production that actually makes it easier to take something from? does your world not include rock and pop music, police progammes and late review and crappy films and adverts and all the rest? Discuss that some of the media satire was pretty limp (and Mitchell isn’t that assured as a film director..) engage with what’s in fornt of you. These people seem not to be interested in content – there’s plenty to get their (presumably gritted) teeth into in both staging and text, nor in theatre – theatricality – they would be having a lovely time. If they think theatre is just character acting and relationships then they probably need to be more selective when booking seats.

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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.

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I found this post in my drafts after not being here for a while. But it still makes sense so here it is. And Faust may still be on. Cynically I also slightly wonder if it will increase my hit rate (from zero…). Perhaps I should link to David Eldridge and Fin Kennedy‘s excellent blogs if i want attention.
So punchdrunk and shunt make genuinely interesting attempts to redefine the relationship with the audience. I think this is true. And with the astute (but hands-off) backing of the NT, they are able to attract the kind of bemused, uncomfortable, slightly frightened middle-aged, middle-class audience with lots of cash that mill around a little nervously amongst the hip kids with media studies and art degrees. It is worth making a comparison of these two barnstormers of the current London experimental scene (if there is such a thing). Shunt are by some distance more radical, I think, and more serious-minded, and perhaps for the same reason more prone to create moments that don’t translate. The confrontation is important to them, always has been as far as I remember: there’s a hint of a stylish Forced Entertainments about them, with cabaret as a reference point rather than 70s and 80s Americana. FE have always celebrated the vapid and challenged you to decide whether they’re being profound – sometimes Shunt’s attempts to celebrate the profound can seem a little vapid. Plus shunt are so determined not to be seen as being overserious that they include lots of defiantly flippant material – which can come across as a bit dada-by-numbers.

I’ve only seen Faust of Punchdrunk’s work and its scale is certainly awesome. There are real treats – tiny private moments – and I think the emphasis on movement rather over text suits this kind of work brilliantly – it’s their most definite and distinctive contribution. But here (and with dreamthinkspeak, who must be bewildered at having missed the NT boat – despite an arguably more consistent output; but they don’t have punchdrunk’s cockily feel-good, sponsor-friendly cool), there seems a laziness to the structure – the audience leave when they get bored. Which seems to me to be a terrible way of ending a theatrical event when we so often talk about the shared experience. The streets around the venue are intermittently spilt with punters who think they’ve probably seen about as much as they can be bothered to see without walking up all those stairs again.. there’s something wrong here. Watching the band in the bar isn’t a unifying experience (or if it was to be, the bar needed to be a lot bigger and more chaotic). What about the audience (again)? When we try these new ways of relating, aren’t we making something in collaboration with them, making decisions together about when it’s over and that we’re satisfied to be unsatisfied or happy to have been fulfilled? Perhaps it’s not possible, on the industrial scale that Faust works on, to worry about the little guy in the sweaty mask.

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I’m not persuaded by the perceived distinction between ‘experimental’ theatre artists and ‘mainstream’, or worse, ‘commercial’ theatre artists. In any instance of making a show, the creators need to take into account who it’s for – the context including the size and shape of the auditorium, (and it’s history and porgramme), the same of the producer, the city and culture where it’s taking place – and what expectations this might inspire in the audience. The idea that we make theatre in a vacuum, or that it will be possible for the audience to arrive free of preconception (even, and possibly especially, if they are a new audience), is a naive one. At this point the artists have their artistic freedoms to make choices. Do they want to subvert, or take advantage of, these expectations? Is it a burden to be making a new play for the Royal Court – it’s certainly going to be a different production and mood if it’s there as opposed to, say, a small found-space venue, even if the director, designer and script are the same. So I hope that we all feel that to make something extraordinary is better than making something ordinary. Having said that, if you are making a production of a farce for a large auditorium, and you have a stunningly radical idea, you’d be doing a poor job if you surrendered to the thrill of the moment and implemented the idea, destroying the delicate construction of the play in the process. The work on the script (and the brilliance of the writer) has introduced the idea to you – but it might have no place in this production. which is not to stop you picking up on the idea and making a piece of theatre elsewhere, later, which expresses that idea to its full.

What I believe is this: that the delicate judgments of an Alan Bennett, Sheridan or Goldsmith, writing for a large popular audience, do not come from different impulses than those of our more esoteric, modish or obscurantist cult heroes. They’re just expressed in such a way as to serve the purpose of the immediate context of making the play. Which makes me wonder why unimaginative writers and directors are encouraged at all. Why can’t we be allowed to make mysterious, ‘arty’ installation pieces which demand close attention one month, and crowd-pleasing moral tragedies that cheerfully manipulate the emotions the next? Certainly the commercial companies are to blame for being absurdly risk-averse, when they know that the real hits have innovation shot through them.
Perhaps it’s a matter of taste, and our peers don’t believe that we can enjoy both aesthetics. If you think this, I think you are wrong.

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