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.

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.