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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Value Judgements

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Who decides what makes art good? This nagging, age-old question was recently posed once again in the first of Grayson Perry’s Reith Lectures and was met with a multitude of answers. While debates about the categories of “good” and “bad” are far too knotty for a single piece of writing to untangle, one thing we can agree on is that critics tend to fall within that circle of cultural arbiters. So how do we distribute our approval? And what do we take into consideration when making those value judgements?

Around the same time as Perry was delivering his Reith Lectures, BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking Festival held an event asking ‘Are Audiences Killing Culture?’ No doubt the title was meant as a provocation rather than a serious suggestion, but the very fact that this question can even be posed says something about how our culture assigns value. If audiences become the enemy of culture, then who is that culture ultimately for? And without an audience, how will it survive?

If art as the beleaguered, exclusive realm of the few sits in one corner, then perhaps opposite it is art that embraces its audience not only as spectators but as co-creators. Increasingly, works of contemporary art and theatre are being made with audiences as well as for them, recruiting participants to actively shape the final artistic material. Here the process is just as important as the product – indeed, for those who take part, it might be more important than what they eventually produce. But this, of course, presents a problem for the critic.

In a controversial essay published in Art Forum in 2006, Claire Bishop challenged the assumed political efficacy of the relational and participatory practices that she saw gaining momentum in contemporary art. In this article, she suggests that these practices are “less interested in a relational aesthetic than in the creative rewards of collaborative activity”, resulting in value judgments that ignore artistic criteria in favour of praising the work’s social and political ambitions. In response to this work, Bishop witnesses a problematic “ethical turn in art criticism”, one that she would see replaced with a more critical and interrogative discourse.

While Bishop has brought such arguments to the fore of art criticism, participatory theatre has not been subject to quite the same level of discussion between critics. As an art form, it also deserves its own theory and vocabulary; the huge difference between visual art and theatre, of course, is that theatre is a live experience that is not so easily reduced to a pure commodity, bringing process and product closer together in that sense. Lyn Gardner, one of the few newspaper critics to meaningfully engage with what is variously labelled as community, applied or participatory theatre, argued that we should not patronise this work by focusing too heavily on its social efficacy. Asking whether a critic should take the process into consideration when reviewing work of this nature, she concluded that “if the project has a theatrical manifestation – if an audience is invited and critics too – then it has to be judged on the basis of the performance”.

But this penetrates deeper than relational art practices or community theatre. As critics, are we always judging a final product? Does the process even matter, or is that not our concern? And if we do focus our attention purely on a finished performance and its supposed fixity, are we in some way complicit in commodifying that performance in a way that runs counter to the social potential of the live moment?

These are questions that I find myself repeatedly returning to as I engage in conversations with London Bubble about their latest intergenerational show. From Docks to Desktops has been collaboratively created by its participants, who have gathered experiences of working life from their local communities over a number of months. The resulting show, stitched together from these various stories, reflects the socio-economic shifts in a specific area of London and its impact on the people living there; it is, essentially, a community discovering and telling its own stories.

While thinking about From Docks to Desktops, I was fascinated to see a conversation between critic Matt Trueman and theatremaker Rajni Shah about her project Glorious,which involved a different group of participants in every area it visited. Trueman initially had what he described as an “allergic reaction” to Glorious and decided not to write about it, but after being approached by Shah he entered into a lengthy dialogue about his problems with the show. Throughout this conversation, Trueman is remarkably honest about his own habits as a spectator, while Shah admits that initially her main focus for Glorious was the participants rather than the audience. As she recognises, the participants get a week with the show, whereas an audience’s time with the piece is strictly limited and therefore they need a way into it. They need, perhaps – just as Trueman arguably needed – an appreciation of the process.

The process of From Docks to Desktops is inscribed in its performance. It is performed by the same participants who helped to gather the material that forms the piece and it is framed by the act of interviewing. This strikes me as a canny choice, allowing audiences that way into the stories being told, while at the same time allowing an appreciation of the work simultaneously on the levels of process and product. It also builds space for the encounter with its audiences – many of whom, of course, will be from the area it is concerned with, and some of whom will have contributed their stories to its creation.

The question of assigning value to this performance, however, will still prove tricky. Is the success of its process alone and the community of people it has brought together enough to make it “good”? Does that little moment of magic glimpsed in a rehearsal or a scratch performance contribute towards a positive judgement? Or does everything rest on one, supposedly final iteration of this collective story? And, to look at it yet another way, should the critic’s role in assessing work like this even be to pronounce an authoritative “yay” or “nay”? Is there not another shape the critic could adopt, as the initiator of conversations around this work?

There are a few things I know. I know that I don’t want to think about theatre purely as product. I know that I’m interested in process and I want to think about how an understanding of process might inform my criticism. And I know that I’m excited by the potential of criticism to spark wider conversations about theatre and engage people in dialogue about the culture they engage with.

Talking about theatre rather than speaking theatre, as Maddy Costa so brilliantly puts it. As for all the other questions I’ve asked, I’m not sure that I have any answers yet. But it feels as though these are questions that we, like Perry, should be continuing to ask ourselves. What makes theatre good, who decides, and how do they decide?

Translunar Paradise & Critical Distance

If you’ll forgive the cliché, sometimes less really can be more, as Theatre ad Infinitum prove with their delicate essay on love and loss. The plot is simple, the production accomplished through a blend of simplicity and ingenuity. The elderly male protagonist is coming to terms with the loss of his wife, still taking down two cups from the cupboard instead of one, rifling through suitcases brimming with memories; his wife’s ghost looks on, gently but firmly wrenching herself from his grieving grasp. This is all told, over an hour, with no words. Instead we have the sigh and hum of an accordion, the narrative precision of movement. In a beautifully judged touch, masks are inventively used to convey age, whipped away to transport the couple back to their youth and lightly hinting at the deceptive proximity of these two states.

Through a series of smoothly executed flashbacks, we are given a glimpse into this couple’s life together, from the moment they meet, through their small joys and disappointments, to the little tragedies that touch their existence and eventually wrench them apart. Into this moving story of the lives of one ordinary couple, Theatre ad Infinitum even manage to weave one of the most chillingly evocative visualisations of war and its traumatic psychological scars that I’ve seen on the stage. On real and dreamed battlefields, performer George Mann is pummelled by invisible blasts, painfully contorted, violently tossed about by nightmarish forces. Not all of Spielberg’s mud and gore can quite match it for emotional force.

Speaking of emotional force, while watching I couldn’t help thinking of Lovesong. While these may in many senses be two very different pieces of theatre, there are common elements that immediately leap out: the process of a man coming to terms with the idea of losing his wife, the centrality of physical movement, the melting of past into present. I found, however, that Translunar Paradise was more genuinely moving in its wordless simplicity than Lovesong was in all its none too subtle emotional manipulation. Sobbing is all very well (though not something I’m particularly susceptible to in the theatre, to my immense discomfort as everyone around me at the Lyric Hammersmith sniffed into their tissues) but an excess of tears can blur meaning beyond intelligibility.

While Lovesong sacrificed promising debates about the nature of time in favour of prodding at our tear ducts, here such underlying strands are given more nuanced exploration. Through what is, on the surface, an ordinary tale of two ordinary people, Theatre ad Infinitum delicately investigate the fluidity of time and, linked to this, memory. Form subtly reflects content; the flashbacks emerge as snapshots, flicked through with vivid energy. These elegantly choreographed scenes from the past rather appropriately have the stuttering quality of early film, jumping from action to action, meticulously wrought expression to expression. There is all the frenetic motion of memory and the seemingly speeded up time of youth.

After seeing this moving and beautifully assembled piece, however, I found myself thinking as much about how my impression of the performance had been refracted through my experience of speaking to creator Mann as I was thinking about the show itself. This is not to detract from Translunar Paradise in any way, but perhaps rather to detract from my own abilities and assumptions as a reviewer. As a result, this has morphed from a review into a not-quite-review with a bit of reflection on the distance between theatremakers and critics thrown into the mix.

This issue of distance was not something that had previously worried me. Yes, I sometimes review shows after writing features about those shows, but usually I still feel qualified to form an independent opinion; I don’t know the creators of the theatre well enough from one short interview to be swayed by any personal connection to them, and often there is much about the piece that still remains to be discovered even after discussing it. While it might have put a slightly different slant on those reviews, I hadn’t really thought about it in any great depth until recently.

Then the idea of ’embedded’ critics started getting thrown around. A good place to get started if you’re new to this discussion is Andrew Haydon’s blog, where he has written twice about the idea of embedded criticism, with Daniel Bye’s response making good follow up reading. Distilled down and somewhat simplified, embedded criticism denotes the deeper involvement of the critic in the piece of theatre they are writing about, be that a full immersion in the creative process or more of a surface paddle. There are lots of different ways in which this might function in practice, but the driving idea behind it is that being embedded in the process could provide illumination on both sides: critics bring their outside eye and in return gain insight into the process of making.

I’m not going to discuss embedded criticism and all its benefits and drawbacks here, partly because others have already done so fairly comprehensively and partly because I’m yet to fully make my mind up about it. I’m equally fascinated by, excited about and wary of the idea. Which brings me to the particular wariness I felt while watching Translunar Paradise. I think these concerns arose in relation to this particular production simply because Mann spoke in such eloquent detail about the process of meticulously piecing this show together. Through hearing about creative choices, I felt somehow involved in them, and the end product immediately prompted memories of the process that Mann described to get to this stage. As such, I was unsure whether I could trust my own critical perception of the piece and its effects.

There is always the danger, once you have been told what the intention is behind a certain creative decision, that as an audience member you will be unable to distinguish between whether this decision actually produces the desired effect or whether you are simply reading it in that way because you’ve already been instructed to. There are even occasions, such as I found with Headlong’s confused and frankly bizarre touring production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream last year, when explicit, laboured reasoning is required to explain a production’s concept, which seems something of a failure of the concept itself.

Aware of this danger, doubts insidiously imposed themselves on my reading of Translunar Paradise. Was this really an exercise in precision, or did I simply see precision because I knew about the lengthy creative process? Here I feel fairly confident that yes, Theatre ad Infinitum’s work was beautifully precise, but when it comes to other building blocks of the piece I am less certain. Would I have read quite so much into the choice of accordion accompaniment had Mann not spoken about the importance of an instrument that “breathes”? Would I have picked up on the influences of photography and graphic novels? How much would I have scrutinised the physical embodiment of age had Mann not admitted that it took him a lot of work to perfect the gait of an old man?

But for all my doubts, I also feel immensely grateful for the insight that I gained into the process that made this piece of work. Ultimately I found watching Translunar Paradise a hypnotically captivating experience, which I suspect was a mixture of the show itself and the tiny glimpse I had gained of its loving creation. I also hope that any insight provided by Mann’s words might enhance the experience for other audience members. It’s a lot like the magician and his illusions; magical as it might be to be tricked and dumbfounded, another part of the mind always wants to know how it works, to feel for the cracks. And sometimes being shown the process behind the illusion even makes the illusion itself all the more beguiling.

Image: Alex Brenner