Are We On The Same Page?

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Back in 2009, Andy Field argued in a post on the Guardian Theatre Blog that “all theatre is devised and all theatre is text-based”. Cutting through arguments about “new writing” and “new work”, he reasoned that “to devise is simply to invent”, whether that inventing is done with words or bodies or any combination of the two. Job done, surely?

Yet the disingenuous “text-based versus non-text-based” debate has rumbled on. It flared up yet again at the beginning of this year, when David Edgar was announced as Humanitas Visiting Professor in Drama at the University of Oxford and raised familiar concerns about the threatened position of playwriting and the playwright, met with retorts from the likes of Lyn Gardner and Andrew Haydon. While Edgar persisted in pitting other forms of contemporary theatre practice against playwriting, others agreed with Gardner that what we need now is “a far wider and looser definition around what we mean by new writing”. Alex Chisholm, writing in these pages over three years ago, argued much the same thing.

But it’s not just about changing industry terminology. Current binaries are based in long-seated assumptions about the nature of the theatre text and the privileged place of the solo-authored play within British theatre tradition. Unsettling assumptions – and by extension the structures and processes that have congealed around those assumptions – is no easy task. It is happening, with the publication of books like Duska Radosavljevic’s excellent Theatre-Making: Interplay Between Text and Performance in the 21st Century and shifts in programming and commissioning at theatres such as the Bush and the Royal Court, but there’s still a way to go.

Shifting understandings around text and performance means shifting the possibilities open to theatre-makers. Writing in the immediate aftermath of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, where categories like “new writing” and “new work” seem more and more irrelevant each year, Matt Trueman suggested that “a new kind of fusion theatre is emerging”. He pointed to young companies like Barrel Organ and Breach Theatre, who seemingly don’t discriminate between new writing, devising and documentary theatre. He concluded that this slamming of one set of techniques into another creates a healthy and experimental theatrical landscape, in which “the possibilities are endless”.

The picture sketched by Trueman is an exhilarating one, but there are still questions to be asked. Often, the supposed binary between “text-based” and “non-text-based” theatre has rested on larger ideological stakes; “non-text-based” work has frequently been seen as alternative, radical, progressive. But to what extent is that still true? Mightn’t real ideological interrogation, as Liz Tomlin suggests in Acts and Apparitions, lie in looking beyond superficialities of form? And in order to rethink the relationship between text and performance, we also need to think again about what it is the theatre text actually does. Is it a blueprint for performance? A set of tools? Is there really a difference between “open” and “closed” texts, and if not then is there anything that the theatre text makes impossible in performance?

These are some of the ideas that I’m hoping we can address at Are We On The Same Page? Approaches to Text and Performance, a one-day symposium at Royal Holloway on 26th September. Bringing together academics, critics and practitioners, the aim is to erode old binaries and open up genuine, searching discussions, rather than re-igniting old antagonisms.

The day will open with a Q&A with Tim Crouch, whose work as a theatre-maker has repeatedly confounded distinctions between “new writing” and “new work” and challenged our collective understandings of theatre’s representational mechanisms. Field, Radosavljevic and Haydon are all among the panellists who will be speaking later in the day, alongside a range of other theatre-makers and academics whose practice and scholarship has in various ways engaged with some of the questions identified above.

What we hope to generate throughout the day is dialogue in place of dichotomies. It’s about time we ended what Chris Goode calls “the phoney ‘writers versus devisors’ war” and started to interrogate some of the bigger, knottier issues that old battle has served to hide.

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Doing Things with Bodies

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Bodies on stage constantly surprise me. The ways in which they tumble, contort and embrace; their capacity to startle and to move – in all senses of the word. The way they both betray and are betrayed. The small movements that become saturated with meaning. Watching contemporary dance – an art form I don’t see nearly enough of – I’m just as likely to be struck by the odd twist of a hand or flick of a head than by the overall execution of the choreography, about which I’m almost entirely ignorant. I find myself drawn instead to gesture and interaction; to the way that bodies meet, part and respond to one another in the space.

So how does a writer with a love for but embarrassing ignorance of dance respond to a programme of performance that is flirting with dance vocabularies in a venue usually dedicated to contemporary dance?

Forest Fringe’s fleeting residency at The Place is an intriguing meeting of performance practices, an inter-disciplinary experiment in curation and audience engagement. Over two nights, the organisations have co-curated a range of performances and installations that dance delicately around genre distinctions, standing at the intersection(s) between theatre, live art, contemporary dance, performance and participation. It’s both dance and not-dance.

In watching, I can only react to the bodies. I’m reminded, aptly, of the words of Forest Fringe’s Andy Field: “Theatre is a space in which we can ask questions that only our bodies can answer.” Theatre does thingswith bodies just as much as it does things with words. And the same goes for the performances I see at The Place: they do things with bodies.

In Gillie Kleiman’s DANCE CLASS: a performance, our bodies as audience members form the material of the piece. After being ushered into the room in darkness, we close our eyes and are invited to inhabit our own bodies more fully – specifically, our hands: their connection with the floor, their movement, the bones and muscles that form them. It feels part meditation, part piss-take, Kleiman delivering everything with her tongue more or less firmly in her cheek. Despite the lightly mocking flavour, though, it’s oddly relaxing. I find my fingers tingling as they press down into the ground or flex in the air.

Before long, though, our bodies are found to be wanting. Leading her strange, ever-shifting dance class, Kleiman is brisk and occasionally bullying, leaving no doubt as to who is in control here. She teaches; we try, we fail. Reflexes are too slow, muscles reluctant to mimic the moves demonstrated by Kleiman. Whose bodies are really important in this space? the piece begins to ask between laughs. Whose show is this? Lightly, playfully, tongue still planted in cheek, Kleiman prods at interaction and its often obscured power dynamics. Our bodies might be the raw material, but who in the end is sculpting them?

If 27 is also (intermittently) playful, that’s where its similarities with DANCE CLASS: a performance end. The relationship with dance in Peter McMaster’s tender, bruising show is less explicit, but nonetheless it is overwhelmingly about bodies – bodies that live and love and die. This is all wrapped up in a structure that resembles nothing so much as ritual, from its slowly burning incense sticks to its ceremonial scatterings of ash. The two bodies on stage in front of us – McMaster’s and fellow performer Nick Anderson’s – are here, visibly and thrillingly alive, in order to think together about death.

The title refers to the “27 club”, that morbidly romanticised group of musicians – including Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse – who all died at the same age McMaster is now coming to terms with. Death, then, is a constant and in some ways alluring presence in 27, but so too is life in all its joy and heartbreak and messiness. In contrast to all the unthinkingly mythologising responses to those “live-fast-die-young” icons, 27 is complex and personal and humane, acknowledging the appeal of the myth while fusing it to material that is at once autobiographical and outward looking.

It’s the second time I’ve seen the show and the same moments knock the breath out of me all over again. They all have to do, I realise, not with design or words or even fully articulable ideas, but with just these two performing bodies. There’s a sequence in which McMaster struggles again and again to escape from Anderson’s half-embracing, half-smothering grasp, straining out of his arms over and over, all underscored by the devastating soundtrack of Janis Joplin’s “Cry Baby”. Both men are naked by now – a nakedness that feels as gentle and generous as it is exposing – and their bare skin is lightly coated in the ash that clouds the air. Death hangs on them, yet they are so so alive.

Later, in one of the most powerfully simple gestures I’ve seen on a stage, the two men fall repeatedly into one another, stepping gradually further and further apart as they do so. Shoulder smacks into chest; arms grip arms. You can almost see the bruises blossoming in real time. There’s such trust in it, a trust and cooperation tinged at the same time with pain and a kind of heavy, unspoken grief. Each time their bodies slam into one another, it’s all I can do not to gasp with the bruising beauty of it. Bodies, at once sturdy and fragile, embracing, catching, supporting one another.

To talk about embodiment is often to be misleading. We aren’t brains in jars, we’re blood and muscle and sinew, and so everything is embodied – from sitting and reading a book to me typing these words, the smooth surface of the keys sliding under my fingertips. Still, there’s something about live performance that almost imperceptibly changes how we see and understand both the bodies on stage and, perhaps, our own, whether in our seats or up on our feet. And time and again, as at Forest Fringe, I find myself surprised.

Photo: Jemima Yong.

Oh, I Can’t Be Bothered, Soho Theatre

“I would like to talk to the capitalists about money, but they only wanted to tell love stories” René Pollesch

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For as long as I’ve been an adult, I’ve been pretty independent. Less in a loud, Destiny’s Child, “throw your hands up” way, more in a quiet, fairly content, getting on with it way. Most of the time, I think I’m OK with the idea of being alone. Yet still there’s this voice socially hardwired into the back of my brain somewhere that periodically shouts “OH HOLY FUCK IF I DON’T SETTLE DOWN SOON I’M GOING TO DIE ALONE SURROUNDED BY CATS”. And no matter how coolly indifferent I think I am to it, I can never completely silence it.

There’s a scene in Alice Birch’s brilliant Revolt. She said. Revolt again. which articulates all of my ambivalence about marriage in ways that I hadn’t even articulated to myself before seeing it. In it, a woman responds to her boyfriend’s marriage proposal with meticulous logic, picking apart the ideology knitted around this institution thread by thread. What her boyfriend has actually just said that he wants, she concludes, is to turn her into “a thing to be traded”.*

I’m thinking about both of these things as I’m watching Oh, I Can’t Be Bothered, RashDash’s latest show. About that culturally embedded demand to MATE NOW WHILE YOU STILL CAN and about the idea that marriage, this state we’re all taught to aspire to, is essentially about ownership. I’m not particularly comfortable with either idea. No, more than that: as a feminist, I feel I should probably reject both – the voice and the institution.

But it’s not quite as easy as that, as RashDash recognise. Oh, I Can’t Be Bothered is about those conflicting desires to be independent and to be secure; about what we really ask of one another in modern relationships; about whether we should be asking something different, something more. It’s about different kinds of love and how our culture values them. It’s about the idea of “The One” and it’s about every love song you ever heard on the radio.

Bea and Dee are best friends. They love each other. They used to live together, but now Bea has left to live with her boyfriend. Dee misses her. Dee wants her back. Why can’t they just stay together forever?

Representations of female friendship are nothing new, but RashDash dramatically shift the ground on which this one stands. Bea and Dee are no pale imitation of Carrie Bradshaw and her mates in Sex and the City, dissecting relationships over brunch while sporting the latest pair of Manolo Blahniks. RashDash even dare to suggest (*gasp*) that female happiness might rest on more than footwear and fornication. Why do romantic pairings have to be the relationships that define our lives?

There’s something at once bracing, optimistic and sadly resigned about the central suggestion that the two women bind their lives together – not as lovers, but as partners nonetheless. The whole in sickness and in health thing, as Dee puts it. Right from the start, however, it’s clear that this experiment is unlikely to succeed. The hopeful gesture of a new way of relating to one another is balanced by the social and cultural pressures that make it unthinkable. That voice that screams “GET MARRIED OR DIE ALONE”.

RashDash tell this story with a blend of blunt dialogue and striking physicality. In one moment, performers Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen are rubbing their heads against one another, nuzzling like animals. In the next, they are rolling and jumping, flinging one another around the space. The struggles of their friendship and the pressures of the surrounding world are played out physically, the challenges and disagreements unmistakable in their bodily collisions.

And although the speech exchanged between the two women is sharp and often funny, the most powerful moments play out in the visual and the abstract. In one hilarious yet heartbreaking scene, Greenland yells song lyrics into a microphone (“You’re still the one I run to, the one that I belong to”; “If you’re not the one then why does my hand fit yours this way?”) while Goalen runs blindly and fitfully around the stage, covered in a plastic sheet that is wedding veil, suffocation device and shroud all at once. It’s hard to imagine a more powerful visual metaphor for the stifling demands of romantic love, as shouted out from every love song, every romcom, every thoughtlessly saccharine Valentine’s Day card.

Andy Field and Ira Brand’s put your sweet hand in mind – which I fell giddily head over heels for – was originally born from the desire to make a show about love “in which no one falls in love”. In the end the piece that they made, while it was also about other loves, didn’t quite fit that initial bill. Somehow, somewhere along the line, romantic love crept in. It’s hard to keep out.

In Oh, I Can’t Be Bothered, Dee and Bea make a similar discovery. Turning one’s back on the promise of romantic love and the fiction of “The One” is no small feat. Given that it seeps into every last corner of our culture, it’s unsurprising that we find it so hard to get away from. As Field once put it, “love turns everything into a love story”.

But voicing the desire for a way of living that is not solely constructed around a romantic partner feels important, both in the context of feminism and in the simple sense of how we relate to one another. If we can uncouple our sense of identity and wellbeing from an inward-looking dependence on one other human being, perhaps we can begin to look outwards to each other, our communities, the world we live in. We can take joy in other kinds of love, kinds of love that aren’t bound up in a lucrative commercial package.

At the moment, however, it remains difficult to imagine. If Dee and Bea fail, and if put your sweet hand in mine fails, then the real failure lies with the society that plants that nagging voice in our heads.

*Incidentally, Alice Birch is currently working with RashDash on two new projects, which is very good news indeed.

put your sweet hand in mine, Battersea Arts Centre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

There is something both seductive and unsettling about eye contact. That flicker of glances across a busy train carriage; embarrassed yet oddly conspiratorial sidelong looks while standing in a queue; the jolt of meeting a performer’s gaze from the darkened safety of the audience. It is these awkward glimpses of one another, and the awkward bodies that accompany them, that are at the fluttering heart of Andy Field and Ira Brand’s new show. In their fragmentary, dreamlike journey through the landscape of love, the desire to look is always tied up with the impossibility of really seeing one another.

At the end of Nicholas Ridout’s book Passionate Amateurs, there is a sentence that struck me with the quiet sadness of its truth: “The theatre protects us from full communication”. And I wonder if therein lies its appeal. The theatre is a space in which we are forever straining towards those moments of connection and intimacy, safe in the knowledge – loathe as we may be to admit it – that genuine intimacy, the kind of intimacy that leaves us raw and exposed and vulnerable, is always deferred. We can get tantalisingly close to it, but it is ultimately closed off to us. Unlike love, which involves a breathless moment of letting go, in the theatre we can remain teetering on the precipice.

But this isn’t the whole story. Ridout goes on to suggest that this shielding from communication is perhaps why the theatre “is one of those odd places outside the most intimate of personal relations where it is possible to attempt such communication”. put your sweet hand in mine, in its delicate collision of bodies and gazes, feels like one such attempt. Inscribing intimacy in its staging, the piece sits audience members in two rows facing one another, separated by a distance similar to that down the middle of a tube train. We are invited, from the very beginning, to contemplate the face of the individual opposite, in much the same way as commuters snatch occasional looks at one another. But it is as much about our awkward failure to meet eyes, our failure to connect. It is surely not for nothing that Field and Brand’s pair of lovers are seated at different ends of their respective rows, only ever coming face to face when separated by an insurmountable distance.

The strange, startling discomfort of direct eye contact, a possibility that is played with throughout, is enhanced for me by finding myself sat opposite Field, who determinedly locks eyes with me as he delivers his lines. I am reminded of the long, stretched-out moments in Uninvited Guests’ Love Letters Straight From Your Heart in which audience members are instructed to gaze into the eyes of the stranger opposite for the duration of the song “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. As then, the performative situation highlights for me the revealing nature of this simple act; despite myself, my eyes occasionally drop, a small, embarrassed smile stealing across my face.

Seated in this uncomfortably close, immediately charged formation, we are treated to fleeting snippets of a love story, or many love stories, depending on how you take it. Looks are exchanged in the anticipatory moments before a show; shy sentences are traded in a Metro carriage in Paris; bodies hold each other close in the dark and cold. I am tempted to say that there is more to put your sweet hand in mine than romantic love – because there is – but its gentle interrogation of everything love might be tangles these different possibilities together. The giddy, pulse-quickening head rush of infatuation, for instance, is evoked by a barrage of sensory information, part of which invites us to imagine a city torn apart by riots, bleeding together revolutionary passion and romantic desire.

For all the uneasiness and the determined stares at floor and ceiling, Field and Brand cradle their audience within the piece, making any discomfort productive rather than distressing. And the show they have crafted is playful as well as reflective, setting us at ease with gentle humour. Even as we laugh, however, it is underscored with a subtle hint of loss. The most affecting of the show’s metaphors – which are also invariably the simplest – are all to do with a sense of slipping away, a diminishing of possibilities. Melting ice is held tenderly in cupped hands, water dripping to the floor with the steady inexorability of tears.

In another of the show’s most dazzling moments, in which it is held unnervingly taut between playfulness and desolation, Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” begins to play, greeted by a ripple of soft chuckles from the audience. On one level it’s a joke, one that trades on the groaning familiarity of the power ballad and its inflated packaging of emotion. But at the same time it feels overwhelmingly apt. Those well known lines, as overblown as they are packed with yearning, represent the unresolved, reaching note on which the show inevitably departs. I want to know what love is. I want you to show me.

Inventing Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Back in 2009, Andy Field wrote a piece on the Guardian Theatre Blog with the bold and frankly brilliant title ‘All theatre is devised and text-based’. His argument, essentially, was that theatre is theatre is theatre. As he explains, “To devise is simply to invent”, making distinctions between devised and text-based theatre ultimately meaningless. Whether something is brought into being based on a set of instructions or a collectively built model that is constructed in a rehearsal room, in the end it’s all just inventing.

It’s extraordinary to look back on this now and realise that Field’s argument was being made so persuasively four years ago, and yet the debate continues to rumble on. Only last month, I attended a conference at Reading University at which an entire heated session – prompted by a provocation from David Edgar that was certainly provocative – revolved around the binary that Field effortlessly dissolves. As blindingly obvious as Field’s breakdown of this dichotomy might seem, the institutional structures supporting British theatre, from development programmes to universities to theatre critics, perpetuate the cleaving of work into these two misleading categories.

Duska Radosavljevic’s refreshing new book, therefore, is more necessary than a glance at Field’s blog might suggest. Theatre-Making lays out its most important intervention in its very title: Radosavljevic proposes this term as the foundation of a new vocabulary for discussing contemporary theatre, bringing it all under the inclusive umbrella of making. While the context of current binaries is acknowledged with frequent reference to genealogies, the book is persuasive in arguing why they are now outdated, with the actual work that is being made often defying the restrictive terms in which it is discussed.

Radosavljevic makes the case for transcending existing binaries by documenting a range of different contemporary practices that challenge the straightforward categories of devised and text-based. The book moves through the staging of Shakespeare, processes of devising and adaptation, new writing, verbatim theatre and relational practices, demonstrating in turn how each of these different practices bridges the gap between devising and playwriting, as well as inviting audiences into a kind of co-authoring. Examples range from the Royal Shakespeare Company to Tim Crouch, from Simon Stephens to Ontroerend Goed.

As well as making the case for doing away with the devised/text-based binary more clearly and succinctly than any other text I’ve read on the subject, Radosavljevic adopts a striking and perhaps telling approach to the supporting criticism she draws on. While it is not uncommon to see newspaper critics referenced in academic texts on theatre, thus far the new forms of criticism that are evolving online have been largely ignored. It’s intriguing, therefore, to see an almost perfect balance in Theatre-Making between print and online writers – if anything, that balance is tipped slightly towards the latter.

This shift is highlighted in a section on Three Kingdoms, which is the production to provoke perhaps the most vociferous online reaction to date. After considering the critical debate at length, Radosavljevic concludes that “the most important outcome of the controversy around the Three Kingdoms reception […] was the way in which the blogosphere managed to outweigh the mainstream press in the depth of insight and its intellectual enquiry”. While this is one very specific example, it suggests that the potential for a new vocabulary of the kind advocated by Radosavljevic might lie in new forms of criticism rather than in the mainstream theatre press.

Having traversed a wide variety of contemporary theatre-making practices, Radosavljevic eventually concludes that these works, “emerging through the encounter between theatre and performance-making strategies”, represent a convergence of what Patrice Pavis defines as “text” and “mise-en-scene”. The implication of this convergence is that it “finally makes it possible for the text to be understood as one element of the theatre or performance-making idiom, thus transcending previously entrenched hierarchies”.

In light of developments that just happened to coincide with my reading of the book, Radosavljevic’s observations and suggestions seem to be vindicated at every turn. Returning again to Field, Forest Fringe (which he co-directs) have recently published the second issue of Paper Stages, described by them as “a festival of performance contained within the pages of a beautifully designed book”. This is not a blueprint for a performance event, but an event made into paper, ink and imagination.

This project demonstrates a deliberately playful approach to the text, with a gleeful lack of regard for the categories it has previously found itself forced into; Paper Stages is neither script nor record, but a set of suggestions for performance – even the word instructions feels too prescriptive. The book is what its reader makes of it, requiring them to reconfigure their own understanding of the relationship between text and performance.

Around the same time, I was also intrigued to see that Bryony Kimmings had published a script of Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model to coincide with the show’s run at the Soho Theatre. This is the culmination of a conversation between Kimmings and publisher Oberon that started last year, when Kimmings began to wonder how her work might take textual form. Would it be a kind of documentation, or a set of instructions that might allow others to reconstruct her shows? I have yet to see a copy of Credible Likeable Superstar Role Modelmyself, but I understand that large chunks of it take the form of poetic descriptions of the onstage action, acting not as stage directions, but also not quite as a straightforward record.

These are just two examples that spring immediately to mind. Everywhere artists are subverting restrictive and prescriptive understandings of the theatre text, but many of the structures around them remain out of step. The hope is that, following Radosavljevic, our critical vocabulary might begin to catch up.