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.

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School Links Are Proving an Education

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Originally written for The Stage.

In straitened times, collaboration is a word that seems to be constantly on the lips of those working in theatre. While this is no reason to drop the fight for arts funding, financial challenges have had the silver lining of producing a number of surprising but fruitful partnerships, be they between fellow artists, artists and venues, or across organisations.

Among these collaborations, some of the most creative and supportive are those that have developed between theatre makers and higher education institutions. This is not a new link, as universities and drama schools have long nurtured the next generation’s theatre makers, but now several organisations are looking at how to strengthen, build and innovate these connections, offering benefits that go both ways.

In many cases, such partnerships are born out of financial necessity. Clean Break, for example, have a 14-year, “multi-faceted” relationship with Royal Central School of Speech and Drama which was originally part of a funded education initiative, but their more recent partnerships with institutions including the University of the Arts and Rose Bruford had “an economic imperative” alongside the broader goal of widening participation. Director and writer Vicky Jones, meanwhile, admits that a real advantage of DryWrite’s partnership with Oxford School of Drama is that they do not have to raise funds for the projects they collaborate on.

Although higher education institutions are also facing cuts, universities and drama schools usually still have more resources at their disposal than independent artists – resources which are increasingly being shared. James Stenhouse, one half of performance duo Action Hero, explains that a great benefit of their relationship with the University of Chichester is the opportunity this affords them to make work in a well resourced environment, an opportunity they might not otherwise have.

Often the starting point for more extended partnerships is a simple teaching relationship which then develops into something deeper. Practitioners from Clean Break regularly deliver lectures for Central, while the foundation of DryWrite’s relationship with Oxford School of Drama is the company’s collaboration on the students’ third year show, which forms a cornerstone of their course. DryWrite now work to deliver a “unique and bespoke” final piece with third year students, bringing in playwrights such as Patrick Marber, Penelope Skinner and James Graham.

However, as Stenhouse is keen to point out, independent theatre makers do not necessarily have to take on regular teaching posts in order to make a living. Despite Action Hero’s long relationship with the University of Chichester, neither Stenhouse nor fellow artist Gemma Paintin are on the staff, and Stenhouse stresses the danger of getting “caught in a loop where we’re training the next generation of artists to teach the next generation of artists”.

In an attempt to break this loop, several of the organisations nurturing such relationships point to their vital role in bridging the gap between higher education and the reality of the theatre industry. At the most basic level, theatre companies working in partnership with higher education organisations can offer work experience for students, but often relationships extend much further than this.

Paul Hunter of Told by an Idiot, whose relationship with RADA was the product of “completely artistic reasons”, explains that the school’s principal Edward Kemp was “very interested in the notion of actors making more of their own work”. As a result, Told by an Idiot have begun developing work with students right from its earliest stages, a practice that they hope to build on. Similarly, one of the crucial aims of the University of Chichester’s relationship with Action Hero – and, more recently, with artists’ collective Forest Fringe – is to offer their students a real sense of what it means to be a working artist.

While most of these relationships have developed through a combination of necessity, accident and artistic curiosity, the longstanding partnership between Accidental Collective and the University of Kent has roots that go back as far as the company’s inception. When co-artistic directors Daisy Orton and Pablo Pakula decided that they wanted to make work together after graduating, the university offered them the opportunity to become their first supported graduate company, acting as “guinea pigs” for a new initiative to retain theatre makers in the region.

The company have since taught at the university, collaborated with academics on a number of research projects, events and publications, and established Pot Luck, a performance platform supporting contemporary theatre makers in Kent. “It’s set us on a very particular path,” says Pakula, recognising how rooted they now are in the local area. “Our practice has been strongly shaped by the region, and by our position between the university and the region. We have, in some ways, acted as a bridge.”

For Sam Hodges, the new artistic director of the Nuffield Theatre, it is important that the theatre’s relationship with the University of Southampton – on whose campus it sits – stretches further than just its arts departments. Since taking the reins he has been working simultaneously on a number of new initiatives, many of which link the activities of the theatre with the university’s leading science and engineering departments, with the aim of creating a “pooled vision and strategy”.

“It makes sense that in a bid to perfectly reflect and embody the qualities of its environment, the theatre should create work that is provocative and intellectually stimulating, provide opportunities of training and professional development, and develop a profile and reputation which reaches well beyond Southampton into the national and international field,” Hodges explains.

Perhaps the most exciting element of these emerging partnerships is their potential to create unique and unexpected outcomes, often through the collision of different artistic approaches. Hodges’ attempt to bring together art and science is one such instance, while the pairing of Told by an Idiot’s highly visual aesthetic with the more traditional actor training of RADA is another prime example. These unanticipated benefits can even have international reach, as with the cultural exchange that the University of Chichester have helped to establish between Action Hero, Forest Fringe and a group of artists in San Francisco.

The real opportunity of these new collaborations, as Hunter recognises, is to open up both artists and students to new possibilities. “Sometimes I think you can learn and be provoked more by going to a place that feels different, rather than aligning yourself always with people who feel familiar.”

Beginnings and Endings

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Let’s start with a beginning.

Sitting in the stalls of the newly plastic-swathed Lyric Hammersmith this September, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt such palpable anticipation in the moments before a show. As suggested by the words “Secret Theatre”, most of us in the audience did not know quite what to expect. The curtain was eventually raised to reveal the performers in a line at the back of the stage, dressed in plain white shorts and vests. Accompanied by a sinister, clinical voiceover, these figures rushed forward to drink from bowls of water, scrambling over one another in a desperate, animalistic struggle. What followed might not have been the best show of the year, but it is hard to think of a more memorable opening.

As I attempt to craft some sort of assessment of the year in theatre, the Lyric Hammersmith’s Secret Theatre project feels like an apt emblem for the change that is slowly pressing in on multiple sides. This time last year, writing another of these deeply subjective round-ups, I reflected that 2012 felt like a year of “small tectonic shifts”. While those shifts might not have precipitated a violent eruption of change across the landscape of British theatre, the last 12 months have nonetheless seen ripples of movement – just more gradually than perhaps anticipated.

Unlike the noisy, thrilling arrival of Three Kingdoms last year, the changes of 2013 have been subtle and structural, hinting more at future promise than present fulfilment. Chief among these changes is the exciting wave of new artistic directors who have either taken up post or been announced: Vicky Featherstone at the Royal Court, Rupert Goold at the Almeida, Rufus Norris at the National Theatre, Lorne Campbell at Northern Stage, Sam Hodges at the Nuffield. Whether these appointments will really offer the shake-up they hint at is still to be seen – though the early signs of Featherstone’s tenure are encouraging – but the collective urge for new ways of working is clear.

The impetus towards change is also characteristic of one vein of work that has particularly stayed with me this year. The phrase “political theatre” always feels like a misnomer – isn’t all theatre political in some way? – but a clutch of angry, thoughtful and passionate productions in 2013 have dealt specifically with ideas of political change and protest. How to Occupy an Oil Rig playfully explored the demonstration (in every sense), while Hannah Nicklin’s A Conversation with my Father offered a decidedly personal perspective on protest – almost reducing me to tears in the process. And another kind of activism is at the heart of Bryony Kimmings’ bold and brilliant Credible Likeable Superstar Rolemodel project, which twice bowled me over with both its raw emotion and the galvanising ambition of its aims.

Elsewhere, the potential for future change was more lightly hinted at. At this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Dan Hutton and I noted the theme of hope that threaded its way through several of the productions we saw, complicatedly paired with both critique and irony. Contrived as this narrative perhaps is, it is one that has retrospectively haunted many of this year’s shows, inflecting my way of watching and thinking about theatre. From its very explicit presence in what happens to the hope at the end of the evening to its troublesome ghost in The Events, the question of hope has been a key feature of much of the most interesting work I’ve seen over the past 12 months.

Chris Goode's The Forest and The Field ©Richard Davenport

Closely linked to hope is the idea of community, which is often vaunted as being at the heart of theatre as an art form. We share the same space in the theatre, after all, so we must be a community of sorts, right? This was tested in various ways by much of the best theatre of 2013, be it the stunning yet gentle intellectual interrogation of Chris Goode and Company’sThe Forest and the Field or the joyously communal celebration of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart – which arguably nailed the whole thing by staging itself in a pub and throwing in some song and dance for good measure.

Similarly to Prudencia Hart, music was a key ingredient of the fleeting community forged night after night in Edinburgh by The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project; food took the same role in Only Wolves and Lions, reminding me of the simple community we build when we cook and eat together. It’s not insignificant that that last example was part of Forest Fringe, a gorgeous instance of transitory artistic community in the midst of this summer’s Edinburgh Fringe. This community also offered up countless other small scale theatrical highlights of the year, among them Ira Brand’s delicate contemplation on ageing, a consideration of our addiction to virtual communities in I Wish I Was Lonely, and Deborah Pearson’s haunting The Future Show.

One show that managed to be both small and epic was Grounded, the absolute standout production of the Fringe for me. The remarkable Lucy Ellinson once again looms large over my theatregoing memories of the year after her compelling delivery of George Brant’s tightly written, blistering monologue, all the while imprisoned within the striking grey cube of Oliver Townsend’s design (as an aside, cubes seemed to be big this year – see Chimerica). Ellinson also dazzled, though very differently, in #TORYCORE, a deafening, devastating scream of rage against the destructive policies of the coalition government.

And it was not only the politicians of today who found themselves criticised in theatres this year. Following the death of Margaret Thatcher, a number of pieces have already directly or obliquely approached her legacy. Theatre503’s quickfire offering of short plays produced a decidedly mixed bag, although Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho’s glorious drag queen rendering of the Iron Lady has deservedly lingered in my memory. The difficulty of discussing Thatcher’s legacy was addressed in all its complexity by Mars.tarrab’s brilliantly titled The Lady’s Not for Walking Like an Egyptian, while perhaps the most striking visual representation of Thatcher came courtesy of Squally Showers, a show that touched on her and her politics only indirectly. Yet somehow, in the image of a performer in a Thatcher mask holding aloft an inflatable globe while surrounded by the detritus of a wild party, Little Bulb wordlessly directed a powerful judgement at the world left to Thatcher’s children.

Little Bulb's Squally Showers

Squally Showers also provided plentiful helpings of sheer joy, a theatrical quality not to be underestimated. Alongside the charming eccentricity of Little Bulb’s latest show, the Edinburgh Fringe also offered the utterly bonkers but irresistibly endearing Beating McEnroe,which will forever leave me with the glorious memory of Jamie Wood pretending to be a tennis ball. An equally joyous moment to imprint itself on my mind this year emerged from Peter McMaster’s Wuthering Heights, in which I screamed with laughter at the four male performers’ move by move recreation of the dance in the Kate Bush music video, while the final scene of rain-drenched anarchy in the RSC’s As You Like It topped off a production that was a delight from start to finish. And no assessment of theatrical joy in 2013 would be complete without pausing to remember Zawe Ashton’s frankly inspired rendition of ‘Where Are We Now?’ in Narrative, a show that achieved the rare feat of being both absolutely hilarious and intellectually meaty.

While it may not fit neatly within the thematic threads I’m attempting to loosely weave through my overview of the year, any consideration of 2013 has to include a mention for Headlong. The company has had a ridiculously successful 12 months, encompassing the slick, stylish storytelling of Chimerica, a bold and theatrically astute new interpretation of The Seagull and – best of all in my opinion – the complete headfuck of Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke’s stunningly intelligent adaptation of 1984. I’ve missed out on American Psycho,but from the outside it appears to offer a striking end to a fairly extraordinary year for Headlong.

As averse as I am to naming any one production “best”, when looking back over the year I find my mind dragged time and time again back to Mission Drift. For many this hardly counts as a “new” production, having first been seen at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011, but this summer’s run at the National Theatre’s temporary Shed space was my first opportunity to see The TEAM’s dizzying trip through 400 years of American capitalism. Fast-paced, sexy and beautiful to look at, Mission Drift can also justifiably be described as epic, an adjective that I rarely find myself applying to theatre. Its scope, energy and excitement has become my personal benchmark against which to measure the year’s theatre, and very little in the subsequent months has equalled it.

As I opened this narrative with a beginning, I might as well close with an ending. Looking ahead to 2014, February will see the dismantling of The Shed, whose garish red silhouette on the South Bank has come to stand for vitality and experimentation at the heart of an institution often associated with tradition – as the narrative it spun to celebrate its 50th anniversary did little to challenge. One can only hope that The Shed’s spirit of innovation, together with that of Secret Theatre and Vicky Featherston’s Open Court festival this summer, finds a way to continue into the next 12 months.

I also contributed to a collective look back at 2013’s theatre with the rest of Exeunt’s writers.

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.

Putting Hope on the Stage: Tim Crouch & a smith

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Originally written for Exeunt.

“An engagement with a group of people sitting in a room together is an innately hopeful act,” argues Tim Crouch, leaning forward slightly in his chair. This statement is something of a starting point for what happens to the hope at the end of the evening, the new show that Crouch has co-written with his friend and long-time collaborator Andy Smith (who goes by the working name of a smith). When I ask about the impetus behind the work, the pair suggest that the title has been lingering in the background of their plays for a long time; Crouch mentions the character of Adrian in The Author and his comment that “there’s always hope, isn’t there?” Even in the work’s bleakest moments, hope is an integral part of its metabolism.

“I think that’s why we go into the theatre,” says Crouch, as Smith nods in agreement. “I think the fact that we are making art is a hopeful thing.” When I speak to the pair in the Almeida Theatre’s rehearsal space, there is definitely a taste of optimism in the air. Despite having only a week of rehearsal time before opening the Almeida Festival – a tight timescale that they find both terrifying and exciting – the mood in the room is distinctly positive. That same afternoon they are inviting the Almeida staff in for a full run-through, speaking eagerly about the opportunity to try the work out in front of an audience – an opportunity that is perhaps even more important for the development of this piece than for their previous work.

While Crouch and Smith have worked together repeatedly over the past few years, on productions including The Author and An Oak Tree, this new show marks something of a departure for them both. As well as co-writing the piece, they will be sharing the same stage for the first time, something that Crouch tells me has been “in the air” for some time: “I have long harboured the idea of working on stage with Andy”. The pair are the only performers in the piece and each occupy their own distinct space on the stage, in a show that Crouch describes as being “about two old friends and the complexity of an evening they spend together”.

After our chat over lunch, Crouch and Smith are joined by director and regular collaborator Karl James for the afternoon’s work and the three men quickly settle into a comfortable rhythm. There’s both ease and teasing in the trio’s rehearsal shorthand – the marks of friendship and long collaboration. Crouch explains that all three “inhabit the same concerns about an audience and a connection with an audience activating the work”, as well as sharing “an identification with some of the challenges that exist in theatre”. The shift in this new piece, however, has cast their collaboration in a new light.

“There’s familiarity – we’ve developed a shared language – but it feels like the language has been reinvigorated slightly by a change in the dynamic,” says Smith. He also discusses how the joint writing process has “illuminated” both his and Crouch’s separate artistic processes, revealing retrospectively the different ways in which they work. At the same time, Crouch is keen to stress that what happens to the hope at the end of the evening extends the concerns that have populated their previous collaborations, existing “on a continuum of conversation” with past work.

It is fitting, given the joint history of these collaborators and their shared fascination with the form of the theatrical event, that what happens to the hope at the end of the evening is an exploration of theatre seen through an exploration of friendship. Unlike many theatrical devices that function as mere vehicles or mouthpieces, here the two central themes are inextricable from one another. As Smith puts it, “the story of the friendship is mirrored in its form”, while the structure of live performance finds expression through the relationship between two old friends; both involve meeting together in a space and negotiating that space separately and together at the same time.

“Andy sits at the side of the stage and introduces himself and ostensibly he tells his own story,” Crouch explains the structure of the piece. “And playing opposite that is a fictionalised, identifiable other character, who kind of inhabits the other sort of form, the other sort of world. He’s a character who attempts to make sense of the world by being physically present in it rather than sitting at the side of it and watching it – by being physically present in a world that he is working very hard to generate on this stage. The push and the pull is between those two worlds.”

As well as this tension between two different understandings of theatre – one open and acknowledging of its audience, one frantically attempting to construct a form of realist representation – the piece explores another opposition, between movement and stasis. “Two channels of consideration in this play are around action and inaction,” says Crouch. “So my character is active – politically active, sexually active, physically active. Andy’s character in this play is inactive or reflective.” While the strain between these two positions powers the play, it is important for Crouch and Smith that “we don’t at any point resolve that”.

There is also another kind of action or inaction that this show implicitly, gently interrogates: that of the audience. Countering the discourse that would position theatre audiences as passive receivers, Smith firmly says, “I do consider going to the theatre and sitting in the stalls to be an action”. His reasoning recalls that of Jacques Rancière in The Emancipated Spectator, a text quoted at the front of Crouch’s collected plays. “There is space left for the audience,” Smith continues, “space for them to occupy mentally, physically. I talk about the space of the theatre and what we do here and what we can do here.” Although, as Crouch is quick to add, “that discourse is problematised as well”.

“The less we do, the more they do,” Crouch puts it simply. Similarly to The Author, this is “a piece that exists as much in the audience’s heads as it exists here”, asking its spectators to be active despite not leaving their seats. But both Crouch and Smith are careful with the language they use about audiences, balancing their hope in the space of the theatre with a healthy dose of scepticism. “It’s not a kind of love-in,” Crouch stresses. “We also want to understand that there is difficulty when people come together; there is difficulty when someone tries to organise community.”

For all these concerns about the theatrical event, however, Crouch and Smith are adamant that this is not just a show for people who regularly attend and think about theatre. “There’s so much language around theatre,” Crouch reflects. “We play with that language about theatre, but I don’t think this language is just for people who are thinking about theatre; I would be disappointed if it was.” Smith adds, “it is a discourse on theatre, but I hope it’s entertaining, I hope it’s a distraction, I hope it’s a good evening out”.

Alongside all these competing ideas – ideas that the piece “problematises and challenges and gets dirty with” – the work is also in dialogue with the particular festival context in which it finds itself, both at the Almeida Festival and in the Forest Fringe programme in Edinburgh next month. As a show about both the space of the theatre and what we do when we leave that space, what happens to the hope at the end of the evening is a perfect festival primer.

“What happens to you at the end of the show?” Crouch echoes the title of the piece. “At a festival, you’re going to go and see something else. It feels like there’s a very clear statement of intent or of questioning in this piece, and that is a really nice thing to have in relation to your theatregoing. To have something to reflect on, to refer back to, or to apply to other things.”

Photo: Mae-Li Evans.