Originally written for Fest Magazine.
“What makes people act?” Director Clare Quinn’s question sounds simple enough, but its answer is anything but. As her company Gramophones Theatre bring their new show The Smallest Light to the Edinburgh Fringe, the subject of political action feels particularly raw. While television screens beam over images of unrest in Turkey and Brazil, the UK continues to reel from the impact of Occupy and the 2011 summer riots amid a building sense of dissatisfaction with the current government. For Quinn, however, the question of inertia is just as pertinent as that of action.
“I think that we’re actually in a situation now where people believe that protest does not work and so disengage from it,” she explains, partially blaming the way in which protests have been reported in the media in recent years. “Just as the systems of government in this country have failed us, I think traditional forms of protest have as well. I think that protest has been marginalised to the point where it doesn’t really relate to most of our community.”
Gramophones Theatre’s response to this disengagement has been to commit to positive action. Performers Hannah Stone, Ria Ashcroft, Rebecca D’Souza and Kristy Guest have each chosen an issue they care about, from food waste to domestic violence, and set about trying to instigate change. The eventual show will chart their progress. “It’s not very high concept,” Quinn says, almost apologetically. “It’s just about what happens if you try and change something.”
Theatre-maker Daniel Bye agrees with Quinn that the media’s presentation of protest has led to a level of apathy. “There’s a huge amount of misrepresentation of the act of protest, of the people protesting and of the ideas behind the protest,” he says. Of course, as he adds, “the generation of that fear and anxiety is actually quite useful to people who would rather that there wasn’t more widespread protest.”
His new offering, How to Occupy an Oil Rig, finds a solution born from that ubiquitous modern source of both knowledge and frustration: the instruction manual. “For quite a while I’ve been completely fascinated by ‘how to’ videos, instruction manuals, self-assembly kits – all these instructions which purport to make simple the complex,” Bye says. Taking inspiration from ‘how to’ videos on YouTube, the show engages with demonstration both in the political sense and in the sense of explaining how to complete a task.
As well as providing a practical set of instructions about the act of protesting, which exists in constant tension with the irreducible complexity of the issues that protest might be in response to, Bye hopes that this format will begin to demystify political action. “It’s a way of saying this is really a normal thing to do – it’s not an outlandish act.”
This demystifying of protest also takes place in Hannah Nicklin’s A Conversation With My Father, which is just what its title suggests: a conversation between protestor Nicklin and her retired police officer father. While the piece is unavoidably political, Nicklin emphasises that it is personal first. “I’ve always thought it has to be about me and my dad,” she says, “because we can debate the issues, but actually that’s the story only I can tell.”
It is important to Nicklin that this personal narrative is told as simply as possible, because “I didn’t want it to look like it could have been made up.” Her hope is that by relating her own experience as honestly as possible and admitting the complexity of the issues she’s addressing, she might prompt audiences to think and talk about these ideas. Above all, she is emphatic about the power of stories: “I think that storytelling is a vital civic act.”
The work of Kieran Hurley, who had Fringe success last year with Beats, is also steeped in storytelling. “I’m kind of obsessed with stories,” he admits with a slight laugh. This was evident inBeats, which told the tale of a teenage boy caught up in the rave culture of the 90s, and is equally important to the new play he has co-written. Chalk Farm, receiving a new production from Thick Skin for this year’s festival, is a response by Hurley and theatre-maker AJ Taudevin to the “reactionary kneejerk conservatism” of the media’s coverage of the 2011 riots. Through storytelling and empathy, Hurley and Taudevin hope to offer an “alternative perspective” on these events.
“It’s just a story, but simplicity and complexity are often two sides of the same coin,” says Hurley. He describes the riots as the play’s backdrop, explaining that it is more about social class and the demonisation of certain sectors of society. While Hurley thinks that all theatre is inherently political, he’s not interested in what he calls “agit-prop polemic”. Instead, he talks about the power of “collectively sharing a little bit of space and imagining possibilities about how we might relate to each other”, and through this process exploring political alternatives.
Nicklin defines political empowerment as “the ability to re-see, to reflect, and to react to the world around us.” Considering theatre’s potential for offering such empowerment, she suggests that it can achieve the first two through providing a space where the world can be seen anew, but that the third is ultimately out of its control. “I don’t think theatre will ever make anyone act,” she concludes. “I think it will just bring you to the point at which you can choose to if you want to.”
Bye equally believes that is up to the individual to choose to act, expressing a certain queasiness about theatre that hopes to provoke its audience to action. “If guilt is what moves an audience to do something when they leave the room, I’m almost not sure that I want them to,” he says. “I would rather recruit an audience’s genuine positive sense of will to act on something.”
This aim to reposition political action as something positive is echoed elsewhere, contrasting with the negative presentation of protest in the media. “If anything, I’d say what we’re making is a celebration of protest,” says Quinn. After all, as she puts it, “having an opportunity to do something about the things that you feel are wrong in the world is a positive, happy, joyful thing.”