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.

Subsidy, Patronage & Sponsorship

Originally written for Exeunt.

“It’s been completely miserable.” Such was playwright David Edgar’s wry assessment of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s three day conference on the state of funding for theatre and performance, examining everything from Arts Council subsidy to the ubiquitous rise of crowd-funding. It is not, on the face of it, a rosy picture. Even in the so-called “golden years” of state subsidy during the New Labour era, substantial investment did not yield new audiences – a predicament that is unlikely to improve now that budgets are being brutally slashed – while the alternatives of sponsorship and philanthropy are attended by a whole plethora of ethical concerns.

There is, however, cause for discussion, and perhaps even a faint glimmer of optimism. To borrow a hackneyed proverb, necessity is the mother of invention; if nothing else, the current crisis is proving to be a stimulating catalyst for new and creative ways of thinking. WhatSubsidy, Patronage & Sponsorship has made clear, at least across the sessions on the day I attended, is a need for new, non-monetary ways of thinking about the value of theatre, a need to ask the awkward questions, a need to engage with and question the inter-linked nature of Arts Council policy and artistic trends, and a need to break through the false binaries that hamper theatre in this country.

Many discussions inevitably revolved around money, or more often than not lack of it. Yet there was also an undercurrent of resistance, a tug away from the imposition of economic measures on an art form that is essentially ephemeral and as such proves more robust against the efforts of commodification than, for instance, the visual arts. As one attendee pointed out during the concluding plenary, the theatre community needs to refocus its efforts on engaging people to value theatre, and not just attempting to persuade governments of its price tag.

Shifting away from the present gloom, the 1970s provided a compelling historical hook on which to hang the difficulties faced at this current juncture. This was a decade which similarly experienced financial crisis, mass unemployment and a Royal Jubilee, but one in which theatrical culture was characterised by a burgeoning alternative movement made up of the likes of Inter-Action, whose founder and former director were among the day’s speakers.

As well as playing with performative experiments in living, this generation of artists questioned the ways in which theatre is assigned value, from the eschewing of box office culture by the Almost Free Theatre to theatremakers’ reminiscences of planning tours around signing on for the dole, delicately captured in Susan Croft’s Unfinished Histories project. One thing that these artists spoke about strikingly in Croft’s recordings was their passionate work ethic – a work ethic outside of and not recognised by the dominant structures of capitalism.

This prompted unspoken questions about the valuing of artists today, a tender and topical subject. Bitter disputes continue to circle the widespread use of unpaid performers by projects such as You Me Bum Bum Train, disputes that often raise valid and urgent questions, but that in their admirable mission to defend the right of artists to be paid often ignore the equal right of artists to refuse payment. If the only artistic endeavours we allow are those that reimburse their participants, not only are we eliminating certain passionate but penniless pockets of innovation; we also rob artists of the option to reject monetary exchanges and pursue a definition of art that sits firmly outside of the capitalist figuring of labour.

This idea of being outside, of being alternative, is one that continued to resurface throughout the conference. But while creeping around the edges of otherwise underexplored issues and ideas represents one of theatre’s great strengths, there was also a warning against accepting marginality. Robert Hewison’s data-chewing key note speech aired some bleak if perhaps unsurprising figures, revealing that more than 60% of the adult population in this country does not engage at all with theatre and performance. While audience sizes should not necessarily be the driving motivation of artists – creativity needs, as Peter Brook would argue, a few empty seats – Hewison’s point was that the theatre community must confront the uncomfortable questions that will be asked of it if it is to formulate answers.

One proposed answer, as already touched upon, is to engage directly with that 60%. Hewison’s interrogation of survey evidence also revealed that while the typical theatregoer profile ticks many of the expected boxes – well educated, white, middle-class – it is in fact an elusive concept of identity that drives engagement with theatre and performance more than any demographic factor. For people who regularly attend the theatre, that theatre both speaks to them and says something about them. Such a component of identity cannot be easily engendered by marketing campaigns or ticket price initiatives; it was argued that instead social interaction could be the key to producing this engagement.

London Bubble Theatre Company’s Jonathan Petherbridge put it nicely when he analogised the theatre as a restaurant. For all that the chefs might proclaim the deliciousness of their food, it will always seem not to be to some people’s taste, but once you invite people to cook, their engagement rockets. This engagement need not necessarily be with the entire creative process, but it was put forward by several different voices at the conference that theatre as an art form needs to be more sociable and to reach out to new audiences, whether this involves working directly with local communities or simply taking the work where it can be seen.

The conference also trudged back over well covered ground in the very British division between “new writing” and “new work” that continues to dominate current conversations and was in this context seen as a division that is holding back progress – a “poisonous binary”, as David Edgar emphatically put it. There was even an attempt during the final open discussion to move away from these familiar debates, with the playwrights on the panel themselves expressing exasperation with this seemingly evergreen topic.

This binary, however, is one that has been perpetuated by an odd, mutually influencing relationship between Arts Council policy and the dominant creative output of this country’s theatre, as explained by Edgar in referring to the split that occurred between text and performance based work during the new writing heyday of the 1990s. Now we have too many writers and a skewed perception of authorship, neither of which is a small problem and both of which contribute to the wider problems faced by theatre today.

So what, if anything, can we conclude? It was generally agreed that subsidy is still important, but playwright David Eldridge hit the heart of the issue succinctly when he said that “artists need to be willing to bite the hand that feeds them in a heartbeat” – whether that be the hand of the Arts Council, private philanthropy or corporate sponsorship.

There was also a feeling that to move forward we have to smash down barriers; barriers between text-based and performance-based work, between the falsely oppositional concepts of the avant-garde and the popular, between artists and audiences. And whatever we might need to smash to get there, we need to find ways to make sure that those artists are still there, occupying the liminal spaces, feeling at the edges of society, finding room in which to play.

 

Pentecost, St Leonard’s Church Shoreditch

Never has art history been more compelling than in David Edgar’s post-Cold War drama, in which a fresco on the wall of a church in Eastern Europe becomes the battleground for clashes between different languages, cultures, religions and ideologies – much like the unnamed post-Communist state of the play has been the scene of invasion upon invasion throughout its troubled history.

After a huge effort of near-compulsive searching, museum curator Gabriela Pecs has unearthed a mural that she believes could completely change the face of art history, proving that the style of painting that set the groundwork for the Renaissance was in fact born not in the West as believed, but in the East. To assist her in her discovery, she enlists English art scholar Oliver Davenport, but their efforts are soon interrupted by the competing objections of the Orthodox and Catholic priests who both lay claim to the church and by the outrage of American art historian Leo Katz, who believes that ancient art should be left alone rather than cosmetically restored to its former glory.

In the fierce debates between Gabriela, Oliver and Leo, Edgar questions both the value and meaning of art. The high art versus low art debate is invoked by the beliefs of Oliver, who argues that we should not distinguish between art and artefact and that we might talk of the Mona Lisa in the same breath as Star Trek. It is an intriguing suggestion, but one that equally renders their restoration efforts almost entirely pointless, a paradox that reveals just how self-serving Oliver’s motivations really are. What Edgar gradually reveals is how this one piece of art of questionable origin is made to mean different things to different individuals, each of whom would impose their own ideology and motives onto this painting.

As well as representing a personal and political battlefield, Edgar questions the easy assumption that art is redemptive and civilising. After all, as one of his characters points out, the guards at Auschwitz listened to Mozart. Any link between art and morality, Edgar illustrates with piercing clarity, is pure wishful fallacy – yet neither is art reduced to a worthless status. The fresco almost becomes a character in its own right, an object whose fate we ultimately care about, achieved mainly through the steely passion of Pinar Ogun’s Gabriela. In order for this piece to truly captivate an audience, Gabriela must infect us with her all-consuming, fevered enthusiasm for her discovery and what it might mean for her nation, a feat that is compellingly accomplished by Ogun, who manages to retain our sympathy even after objecting to her country becoming a dumping ground for the ‘dregs of Europe’, as she disdainfully dubs desperately fleeing asylum seekers.

As integral as art is to the play, however, this is about more than arguments on aesthetics. When, as we move into the second half, the church is invaded by a band of refugees and a thus far intellectual drama escalates into a hostage situation, Edgar is given the opportunity to draw out themes of national identity and the old East versus West divide, a barrier that was not broken down along with the Berlin Wall; the Iron Curtain may have lifted, but a scarcely penetrable veil remains. This is eloquently expressed in confrontations between the simmering melting pot of nationalities brought together in the church and particularly by vitriolic refugee leader Yasmin, who explodes our smug Western stance of superiority.

These expansive ideas and many more are given room to breathe in the large, suitably atmospheric space of St Leonard’s Church, all cold exposed stone and peeling paintwork. The script risks being smothered, however, by a busy, frenetic production from Charm Offensive. The decision to stage this play in this environment is one that makes utter sense, but unfortunately the acoustics are against them, with reverberation draining the sense from many lines – a considerable predicament in a play that is mostly talk. Add to this the sheer amount that is often going on at once, particularly once the refugees arrive on the scene, and Edgar’s beautifully expressed themes are occasionally in danger of floundering.

Director Gavin McAlinden has assembled a rich cast of mixed nationalities, a cultural blend that adds authenticity to a piece in which language, nationality and culture are so vital, though the performances emerging from this mix are uneven. The production remains held together, however, by strong central characterisations from Jonathan Sidgwick as Oliver and from Ogun in the role of Gabriela. As her passion seeps uncontrollably through each stone of the building, it is hard to sweep questions of art and cultural and national identity aside.

Image: Maddy Gasson