What do you want to see on stage?
That’s the question that Chris Goode and Company asked the people of Leeds. And it seems like an apt question to kick off a weekend of looking ahead to the new, expanded incarnation of Transform, a reimagined theatre festival for the city. Transform will take its official first steps as an independent, international festival next year; over two days on 22nd-23rd April, it offered a taster of what’s to come. What better way to anticipate and develop a city-wide festival than to ask the people of that city what they actually want to see?
I was, then, immediately on board with the premise and intentions of Wanted. As invitations go, it’s full of possibility. Scrap that: it’s defined by possibility. The only limits, in theory, are the imaginations of participants and the resources of the festival. So I stepped into West Yorkshire Playhouse on the Friday night of Transform expecting to see gloriously wonky, DIY attempts to make people’s wildest dreams come true on stage. I had images in my head of papier-mâché dragons and confetti cannons and a riot of movement and colour. I was expecting, above all, something theatrical.
But what Wanted really seemed to ask (or what its participants seemed to answer) was a different question: what do you want to do/say on stage?
Though the individual three-minute segments were hugely varied, a pattern of statements emerged. Intriguingly – and somewhat surprisingly in the moment, if not so much on reflection – most of the people and organisations with whom Chris Goode and Company made the show treated this opportunity as a platform. The stage became a vehicle for causes, passions and beliefs, from world peace to the Yorkshire dialect. Wanted thus felt, in many ways, like a not-so-distant cousin of Stand, another Chris Goode and Company show about the idea of standing up for what you believe in.
So we in the audience are asked to check our privilege. We are told about the plight of Kurds in the Middle East. We learn about the work of local charities and community groups. We are urged to respect difference. Voices are given to young people with learning disabilities, to the LGBTQ community, to survivors of abuse and oppression. The theatre feels like a political chamber and the stage finally seems to boast that democracy that it so often aspires to.
Except, of course, it’s not entirely democratic. What we see in front of us has still been chosen, curated, squeezed into snug three-minute slots. It makes me want to know more about the process. How did Chris Goode and Company go about extending this invitation? Who else did they speak to? How did they decide who to include and exclude?
Then there’s the limit of those three minutes, another element (if an understandable one) of control on the part of the “professional” theatre-makers. How much can you really say or do or show in three minutes? How do you choose to use that time? And to what extent does that restriction impel or restrain the voices and creativity of those involved?
Before I misrepresent the experience, it’s not all preaching and protesting. There’s also a toddler being swung round in the air (and my God does it look fun) and a rabbit (with a case of stage fright on the night I attend) hopping around to the strains of “Bright Eyes”. There’s a woman gently, humorously remembering her trips with her late mother to the very theatre we’re sat in. There’s a David Bowie impersonator singing “Heroes”. There are kids dancing in superhero costumes. And it’s all as heart-melting and grin-making as it sounds.
But the most interesting thing about Wanted is, ultimately, the invitation issued to its participants and how they have chosen to interpret it. Does that make it any better or worse as theatre than the loveably over-ambitious, confetti-strewn extravaganza I’d constructed in my imagination? I still can’t decide.
I’ll close, instead, with some words from Chris Goode’s new book The Forest and the Field that feel particularly apt when thinking about Wanted. This passage seems, to me, to convey some of the thinking and feeling that feeds into Wanted, if not necessarily (again, for me) reflecting the reality of it as an experience. Maybe Wanted is best thought of as one inevitably flawed articulation of this understanding of theatre – one of the “pieces”, to borrow Goode’s words from elsewhere, that nod towards a whole.
“[…] at its best, you can live inside theatre, in the way that you might feel that you live inside a set of political or religious commitments: the feeling that you don’t contain such commitments – they contain you. Thus theatre becomes a way of looking at the world, a way of forming and deepening relationships, a way of connecting the intellectual and the romantic, the political and the sexual, the individual and the collective, the civic and the visionary, the present and the future. To borrow what the poet Roy Fisher said (of Birmingham): theatre’s what I think with. Seen always as a hybrid art and a social practice, theatre will expand to accommodate whatever you bring to it; everything can be taken to the work, nothing is necessarily excluded.”