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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Ponyboy Curtis at The Yard

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Originally written for Exeunt.

I can’t get the music loud enough.

Huddled on the train, freshly hurled out of Ponyboy Curtis at The Yard and into the cold, jagged, rain-flecked world, I want the music coursing through my headphones to fill me up, to vibrate through my pores. Nothing is loud enough, bright enough, vivid enough, tender enough.

The post-Ponyboy world feels like a grey but – slightly, almost imperceptibly – changed place.

So what is Ponyboy Curtis?

It’s a party.
It’s an intervention.
It’s an ensemble.
It’s a call to revolution.
It’s a fleeting alternative space, precariously carved out of the worlds of late capitalism.
It’s an invitation to intimacy.

It’s sexy.
It’s dangerous.
It’s tender.

It’s a shot to the heart.
It’s a kick to the gut.
It’s a blast to the eardrums.

It’s not quite like anything else.

“The naked actor is often the most powerful person in the room, partly because they’ve got nothing left to hide.” – Chris Goode

Let’s start with the nudity. Because there’s a lot of nudity. In its repeated acts of dressing and undressing, edges of the stage littered with clothes, this piece – show? experience? space? – feels like a thinking through of nakedness on stage. What does it do? How can that unclothedness be both extraordinary and natural at once? What dynamic does it create with an audience – dressed, distant, looking on?

On the clothed side of that divide, it’s not so much the erotic charge of all those naked bodies that I notice. It’s the astonishing expanse of bared skin: the gentle curve of a collarbone, the pulsing movement of a calf muscle. The brush of a finger against a palm, or the sweep of a hand along the small of a back. Small intimacies, not necessarily sexual, but aching with care.

There’s an ease to this near-perpetual nakedness, but also a provocation. Look at me, the performers dare, occasionally meeting our gaze with a challenge in their eyes. At moments, they appear vulnerable; at others, they are diamond-hard, invincible. Stripped to their skin, the shedding of clothes clads them in a different kind of power.

Looking on, it suddenly occurs to me that nearly all of the most heart-stealing, chest-tightening moments I’ve experienced in the theatre in recent months have circled around nudity – around bodies, tender and exposed. Peter McMaster and Nick Anderson struggling and embracing in 27. Jonah Russell and Oliver Coopersmith tentatively reaching out to one another and then drawing apart in The Mikvah Project. These beautiful, ravishingly brave boys at The Yard falling and jumping and kissing and dancing.

The texture of Ponyboy Curtis is one of nakedness and intimacy and radical energy, but also one of boybands and dance music and buddy movies. Like The Ramones, each of the performers has taken on the temporary surname ‘Ponyboy’, but huddled around a microphone, caps slanted at angles on their heads, they’re more like Take That. The polish of the manufactured pop band, but without the perfect, plastic, stage-managed sheen of One Direction.

Boyband. Gang of mates. Lovers. Men embracing to pumping music. Men strutting, naked and clothed and partly clothed. All these different masculinities. It’s hard not to think of all the characters in Men in the Cities – those broken, contorted boys and men. There’s hurt here too, in the bodies that crumple to the ground and the voices that howl, but in so many ways Ponyboy Curtis is a celebration of all the masculinities that the glass and concrete prisons of Men in the Cities disallow. Masculinities that are gentle, fragile, questioning, joyful. Masculinities founded on care rather than aggression.

Very little is said. This is a theatre of bodies and noise and feeling, not a theatre of words. Quotes, read aloud from pieces of paper tacked to the wall, occasionally slice through the pounding soundtrack but quickly become swallowed up by everything else around them, their traces dissolving. The only words that really stay with me are those of the evening’s guest, Hannah Nicklin, whose letter to her big little brother makes me think of my own three big little brothers and all the harm I worry about patriarchy inflicting on them, all the attitudes they easily absorb and reproduce. Her words make me think again about the world outside this flickering, captivating space and the sort of masculinity that is permissible there.

Then I’m out in that world again, the bright lights of Ponyboy Curtis glittering on my retinas and its music humming faintly in my ears. I don’t yet have words – let alone sentences – to describe or respond to it. Even now, I’m only fumbling towards something like that space and what it made me feel. This is a thinking through of how to write about Ponyboy Curtis, just as the performance I saw – sat alongside? inside? – last Thursday night felt like a thinking through of what this collection of people and ideas might or could be.

Thinking through. Feeling at the edges. Pushing at the walls. Starting something.

Oxford’s everyday activists inspire audiences

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Originally written for the Guardian.

Oxford’s residents have a history of taking a stand. Over the years the city has been home to the likes of Emily Wilding Davison, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Tony Benn and John Ruskin. During the English civil war, it had associations with the radical Levellers movement, two of whose members were executed near Gloucester Green. The city’s Ruskin College has long been a symbol of workers’ education, as well as hosting the inaugural Women’s Liberation Movement conference in 1970. But as Oxford celebrated its radical history last year, theatre-maker Chris Goode and the Oxford Playhouse were more interested in what it means to be radical today.

Commissioned for the Playhouse’s Radical Thinking season, the show Stand – now on at Battersea Arts Centre in London – celebrates the ordinary and extraordinary ways in which local people are standing up for what they believe in. For some, that means activism in a familiar form: campaigning, demonstrations, occupations. For others, it’s simply about being a parent. In the show, Goode has captured and told six of these stories.

The Oxford Playhouse asked its community a simple question: when was a moment you stood up for something you believe in? “I feel like the callout set the bar quite high,” Goode reflects. “There’s something nicely self-selecting about it, because it means that the people who want to talk really want to talk.” Having chosen his six storytellers, Goode interviewed them all over a couple of weeks, gathering the material that would later be performed by his cast of six actors.

The stories they found were as varied as the people sharing them. There’s a climate campaigner, a woman who works with refugees, a mother, an activist who campaigned to save the alternative community at Oxford’s Jericho boatyard, one of the founders of the Reclaim Shakespeare Company, and a man in his 80s who has spent most of his life protesting against animal testing.

Isn’t there a danger, though, that these eclectic narratives just end up serving a structure imposed by the theatre-makers? Goode’s answer to that question is to be constantly confronting it. “I just think being really aware is half of the task,” he says. “You have to let go of your agenda quite often, because it has to be about the people rather than about the issues that you’re trying to articulate.” All of the interviewees speak, for example, about their childhoods, offering a portrait of their personalities as much as their acts. “I think one of the virtues of Stand is that you see everyone in quite high resolution,” says Goode. “Hopefully you get a real sense of the details of people’s lives, so that they’re not just mouthpieces for certain points of view.”

That said, Goode admits that he and his team always had the aim of inspiring their audiences, with the hope that they in turn will go on to stand up for their own causes. “I felt like there had to be that call to action embedded in the show,” Goode explains, “quite gently, but definitely there.” For that call to action to be heard, though, the show has to connect with audiences who might feel worlds away from the activists sharing their stories – “you have to feel like you’ve been listening to people like you,” as Goode puts it. That’s where the human detail comes in.

“One of the really nice things about the people we found is that they were all really quick to talk about themselves in ways that pointed at moments where they’d failed, moments when things had gone in an unexpected direction – moments of daftness,” says Goode. Activism has its fair share of the ridiculous alongside the serious – “bizarre situations where they’re superglued to something or they’re wearing a costume in a peculiar place”. And what Stand’s storytellers all share, like so many of us, is a guilty feeling that they could be doing more: “Even among really hardcore activists, there’s always someone who’s more hardcore.”

Stand was also an opportunity to present people’s courage in a new light. “People don’t often see themselves in that way,” says Goode, “they don’t see their own bravery.” One example is Jan Thomas, who wanted to celebrate her adopted daughter’s small stand against injustice, but found to her surprise that Goode was more interested in her story as a mother. “I felt I had done nothing special,” she tells me. Since taking part in the project, though, she has been bolder in taking a stand, joining some of her fellow participants in their campaigning activities. “After seeing Stand and meeting the others I resolved to be much more active in standing up for the things I believe in.”

A big part of the project has been about engaging new audiences with the work of the Playhouse, not least through performing the show in a local community centre. “I think there’s a perception around Oxford Playhouse, as there is around a lot of venues and organisations of that scale, that they’re slightly fortressed,” suggests Goode. “It felt really important to them as well as to us that this was a way of opening up some different doors.” Producers Hannah Bevan and Michelle Walker describe Stand as unlike any other show the Playhouse has ever worked on, adding that “to be bombarded with audience responses ever since the show opened about how joyful and inspiring they found it was nothing short of a dream”.

“I’ve never done anything with quite such a strong local focus,” adds Goode, questioning how that might translate to audiences during its London run at BAC. “There’s definitely a strength in that specificity, but I don’t know whether it’s a crucial strength yet.”

Just days after Goode and I spoke, Battersea Arts Centre’s Grand Hall was hit by a devastating fire, followed by an overwhelming show of support for a venue with a radical history of its own. It seems that in Battersea, as in Oxford, there continues to be a tradition of standing up for what matters.

Photo: Richard Davenport.

Telling Stories

Written & Directed by Chris Goode. Cast Michael Fenton Stevenes, Kelda Holmes, Christian Roe, Gwyneth Stron, Cathy Tyson, Lawrence Werber

The other night, I got sucked into a general election coverage black hole. Sat in bed, clicking through article after article, eyes fixed wide open when I should have been asleep. I was – I am – terrified. Then, a day or so later, I read this by George Monbiot on the train, hands shaking a little with fury. So much – climate change, the housing crisis, extreme inequality – is fucked, and the media is worrying about what Ed Miliband looks like eating a sandwich.

Likewise, there’s been a lot written about election theatre in the last few weeks and months. And yes, there is a lot of exciting political theatre that’s been programmed ahead of the country going to the polls. But amidst all the uncertainty and spin and sly manoeuvring, what leave more of an impact are those reminders of who the outcome of today’s vote is really going to impact upon. It’s the theatre about people, as much as the theatre about politics, that I find lingering in my mind.

I’m proudly voting Green today (a privilege, I confess, of living in a Labour ultra safe seat and not having the agony of worrying about letting in the Tories by splitting the left-wing vote – fuck first past the post, by the way), but Owen Jones’s argument for supporting Labour – especially in marginal constituencies – is pretty persuasive on this point. As he puts it, there might not be a huge gap between Conservative and Labour, but a hell of a lot of people fall into that gap. Increasingly, it looks as though the coming days are going to be a scrappy, close-fought fight, and the real winners or losers won’t be those sat in Parliament, whatever side of the House they end up on.

Take the characters who populate Beyond Caring. Since Alexander Zeldin and his cast started working on the show a couple of years ago, zero-hours contracts have become a key election issue, but Beyond Caring isn’t really “issue theatre”. It’s just about people. Weary, ignored, cruel, tender, stubbornly hopeful. People making the best of a shitty situation, cleaning up – literally and metaphorically – the mess they’ve been landed in.

Three cleaners on zero-hours contracts work a relentless 14-day cleaning job, alongside disillusioned full-time worker Phil and needlessly cruel night-shift boss Ian, venting his frustration in small displays of power. Ultimately, though, they’re all people who have been let down, forgotten, left out of the “aspiration nation”. But none of this political commentary is explicit. Instead, the hyper-naturalistic texture of Zeldin’s production simply puts us in the same room as these people, watching as they lead their precarious, unremarkable lives. “Just pay attention,” the show seems to be saying. Just look.

A memory: I’m about to cross the road outside Euston Station when I notice a man appealing to passersby. They all ignore him. I walk over, awkward, asking if I can help. He needs money for somewhere to stay tonight but he feels as though he’s running out of options. I listen. He tells me his name. I tell him mine. I try to offer some feeble advice, but honestly I don’t really know what support systems – if any – there are for him to access in the short term. I have to leave, so I give him what little cash I have on me and tell him I hope he finds somewhere. It’s not enough.

I cry, quietly and inconspicuously, all the way to my destination. Guilt itches at me – why didn’t I stay for longer than those few minutes? why, so often when I’m walking somewhere in a hurry, don’t I stop at all? – but mostly I feel a sort of helpless anger. All the talk, all the policies, all the posturing, have suddenly become a sharp kick in the stomach.

But then I think about the inevitability of that moment dissolving into the texture of my day, slowly melting into all the other experiences and conversations and worries. I think about the luxury and privilege of forgetting. I think about how I’m already turning that encounter, that man’s life, into a narrative. I wonder if that makes me just as bad as those who ignored him.

And I think about the long, wounded howl of Men in the Cities.

Tone-wise, Stand is perhaps as far from Men in the Cities as Chris Goode’s practice gets. After I see the show at BAC, Hannah Nicklin suggests that it’s the latter’s gentle counterpart; they’re two different sides of the same coin.

Men in the Cities is angry. Exquisitely, excruciatingly angry. It’s the raw, bruised cry of rage that is sometimes the only response to the world we live in. Rip it all down and start again. The same energy that’s channelled towards destruction in Men in the Cities is directed into positive, life-affirming action in Stand, be that campaigning against climate change, fighting for animal rights, or simply raising children with the strong sense of justice that allows them to take a stand in turn. All of those who share their stories of standing up for something acknowledge all that is wrong with the world, but they continue nonetheless.

Although Stand is a collection of individual narratives, gathered from people in Oxford, I’m struck by how communal they all feel. None of these stories are about us, say the six people sat on stage. It was him, it was her, it was all of us. It feels apt to be sat listening to these stories of action and community in BAC’s Council Chamber, a room soaked in the history of its local people, in a building whose motto “Not For Me, Not For You, But For Us” has taken on new meaning in recent weeks.

Confronted with just how fucked up the world is, it’s easy to feel guilty or helpless or both. My conscience is constantly pricked by the need to do more, while my anger is deflated by the feeling of being too small to make a difference. Handing out a few leaflets for the Green Party, or signing a petition, or spending a couple of minutes talking to a homeless person on the streets – they all feel like miniature, cowardly acts, ways of soothing that itchy conscience without really doing very much. Even the much bigger, much braver acts described by some of the individuals in Stand are just tiny drops in a vast ocean.

But there is something, however small, in stories. Watching Stand with Hannah, it reminds me of a moment near the end of her show A Conversation With My Father, in which someone suggests that what she is doing – telling stories – is the real way to initiate change. It is, at the very least, one way. Stories are how we shape our lives and our place in the world, so if we tell those stories differently then maybe – just maybe – we’re somewhere on the way to acting differently.

And there’s something about who gets to tell their stories and whose stories are told for them – or not told at all. On the same day as seeing Beyond Caring for a second time, I go to an afternoon performance of Turning a Little Further, a show devised with local female carers as part of the Young Vic’s (brilliant, as far as I can tell) Two Boroughs project. Partly inspired by Happy Days, recently in the main house, it’s a shifting portrait of women up to their necks not in sand but in other demands and responsibilities that weigh just as heavy.

“We have not given anyone a voice,” insists the short programme note, “we have simply allowed those voices to be heard.” And that’s the sense you get from the piece, which is filled with this wonderful, poignant, ecstatic cacophony of voices. It’s also properly beautiful – all glitter and soft coloured light and flowing, joyful movement. At one captivating point, bodies shoal and move as one mesmerising mass under a low amber glow; at another, a swing becomes a simple symbol of freedom and play.

It’s difficult too. “I’m choking on my own heart,” says one woman – a line that sticks in my own throat. Often, the struggle of just navigating daily routine is painfully felt, as is the indignity of being swept aside by government and society alike. What’s also felt in the room, though, is the sheer joy of this space of creation and escape, a space that feels increasingly under threat. “This,” I want to shout, “this is why theatre matters.”

Together with Beyond Caring, it’s a sharp reminder of what’s at stake in the fight ahead of us – today, yes, but also in the days after that, and the days after that. So many of the women in Turning a Little Further talk about being invisible, about not being heard. I don’t want to be part of a society where those voices are left to fade away entirely.

Finally, because it’s the sort of day when I either have to be a bit idealistic or collapse into tears, I’ll be singing this in my head on the way to the polling station.

Photo: Richard Davenport.

Engaging with Disappearance

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Originally written for Exeunt.

So much of theatre is about ephemerality. At least as far back as Peggy Phelan’s famous statements in Unmarked, live performance has been associated with disappearance; it exists just once, in the moment, and then disappears (almost) without a trace. So what happens when you try to recapture that moment?

It’s a question that Chris Goode and Company are currently attempting to answer. Thanks to recommission, an initiative run by touring network house, they are returning to Goode’s 2006 show Longwave and remaking it for a new tour. The same team has been reunited, with the aim of jointly excavating a piece that was last performed seven years ago. There was no script, no available video recording, just a jumble of different notes.

“In a way it’s a process that’s about theatricality,” Goode suggests, explaining that “what we’re engaging with all the time is disappearance, the ways in which certain things leave a trace and others don’t”. It has also been a process of detective work, deciphering notes from various different sources and comparing the memories of those in the rehearsal room. Luckily, the shape of the show has been recovered more easily than Goode anticipated.

“It’s been so interesting feeling our way back into it,” he reflects partway through the process. “What really fascinates me is that there are some things that we just knew straight away back in the room on day one, there were things that we remembered very clearly, and then there were other things that only came out of our heads again on day eight. It’s been really interesting the way that those things re-emerge and how often actually we find ourselves thinking through a problem and then remembering that we made exactly the same decision last time. Just recalling the same bumps in the road. Which is nice because it suggests there’s a certain logic to how it all fits together.”

Goode admits that he would have been unlikely to revisit Longwave without the opportunity presented by recommission, but he believes that this is the right piece to return to. “It was just recent enough to know that it was still part of our current work or our current thinking,” he says. Another reason he was keen to recreate this particular show was because it is completely without dialogue, adding another layer of difficulty to the challenge that he and his collaborators have set for themselves.

In the absence of words, Longwave’s narrative is communicated through the gestures of performers Tom Lyall and Jamie Wood and the broadcasts playing from the radio that is their characters’ only window onto the outside world. Stuck together in a shed and surrounded by a hostile environment, the two men perform experiments, entertain one another and squabble over the radio – which eventually takes on a life of its own.

“One thing that intrigued me was that it’s so much about the relationship between Tom and Jamie,” Goode says, pointing to this as another reason for returning to the show. He describes the “brilliantly exciting dynamic” between the pair and the desire to see what new insights they would bring to the piece after seven years of honing their separate practices as theatre-makers. “There was a sense of us in the present dancing with us in the past a little bit and seeing what that kind of duet was,” Goode explains, quickly adding, “not quite a duet, it’s more complicated than that.”

This process of recovery could have been a laborious one, but instead Goode has been surprised by the pleasures of retracing old paths. “In a pretty narcissistic way I think we’ve been rather delighted by a lot of the choices that we made before and quite pleased with ourselves,” he says. “It’s very difficult to imagine that anything you were doing that long ago can possibly have been any good. We kind of knew it was, but it’s been really nice to meet ourselves coming back and find that we made some really delightful decisions.”

Despite the joys of recreating Longwave, however, Goode remains ambivalent about returning to previous work. “I feel so invested in the idea that theatre disappears and that you make a thing that speaks to its moment, that speaks to a time or a cultural moment, a conversation that seems to be happening, and that it should then disappear,” he says. He suggests that the promise of recovery and recreation contained in printed scripts is “a little bit of a red herring”, but recognises its appeal nonetheless.

“There’s an instinct in us to want to crawl back. I think there’s something really interesting in the challenge that theatre puts to us, which is to continually try to be in dialogue with the present rather than indulging our very human instinct both for nostalgia and for the idea of improvement, the idea of going back and making something better. I’m not sure that either of those things are what I think the live spirit of theatre is about.”

Goode’s answer to this “retrospective impulse” is to put a personal stipulation on returning to old projects: there has to be a conceptual reason for revisiting it. “You want it to be conceptually rich and interesting in itself rather than simply getting something out of the freezer and putting it in the microwave because it’s been successful before,” he insists. “If the original thing was speaking to a particular moment, then maybe a different moment comes along that feels like it can shine a different light on that work.”

Goode is also careful to avoid “over-decorating or over-elaborating” what was a seductively simple show, emphasising the importance of “a real feeling of space” in the piece. Most importantly, the show has to feel as alive to Goode and his team as it will to the new audiences encountering it for the first time. “It has to feel like a task of invention in the room still. It can’t only feel like a historic re-enactment society.”