Open dialogue

Colchester 24.4.13 Theatre Arts Society and Frequency Theatre ViTW Reception 2 (2)

Originally written for The Stage.

The post-show discussion does not have the best of reputations. What should be an opportunity to share thoughts and gain artistic insights often becomes a stilted Q&A, a one-sided stream of anecdotes, or an unspoken contest to see who can ask the most intelligent question. But what about a post-show discussion for people who hate post-show discussions?

One of those people – by her own admission – is Lily Einhorn, project manager of the Young Vic’s Two Boroughs community engagement scheme. The project offers free tickets to residents of the boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark, many of whom Einhorn noticed were attending the theatre on their own. Recognising the lack of opportunity these theatregoers might have to discuss the work they were seeing, and acknowledging that the usual post-show format might alienate or intimidate them, Einhorn set about creating an alternative.

The Two Boroughs Theatre Club is modelled on the book club format: rather than being plunged straight into discussion immediately following a show, recipients of Two Boroughs free tickets are invited back after they have all had a chance to watch and reflect on a production. And just as a book club would never dream of inviting the author, Einhorn is firm that no members of the artistic team should be present for the discussion facilitated by the Theatre Club.

“I thought it would be really nice to have a group where the creative team are strictly not allowed,” Einhorn explains, “because I wanted it to be a comfortable atmosphere where people felt like they could say anything they wanted without fear of offending anyone, but also without fear of feeling like they’re stupid.” She continues, “it’s about unlocking something in them and saying: ‘your opinions are as valid as anyone else’s opinions’”.

Einhorn’s brainchild has been run in partnership with Guardian writer and Dialogue co-creator Maddy Costa, who has similar reservations about the traditional post-show format. “We all kind of hate the post-show discussion where everyone’s trying to ask the most interesting question,” she says. “So Lily and I both agreed that we don’t even go to those things; what we wanted to create was something different.” Their Theatre Club is designed to be as welcoming as possible, doing away with the hierarchies that usually characterise post-show events and creating a space that allows for relaxed, open discussion. The response has been enthusiastic, prompting Costa to try it out at other theatres, both through Dialogue and in association with theatre producers Fuel.

Einhorn and Costa are not the only ones seeking alternative models to the post-show Q&A. Camden People’s Theatre, for instance, has created a format it calls Talk Show Club, in which discussion is led by another theatre-maker who has not been involved with the show in question. China Plate, meanwhile, has adapted the post-show events surrounding its latest tour of Mess to suit the specific needs of both production and audience. Caroline Horton’s show is based on her own experiences of anorexia, opening up numerous issues around eating disorders. In recognition of this, China Plate are currently touring the show in association with the charity BEAT, taking it into schools and colleges as well as theatres and running a tailored series of discussions and workshops designed with psychiatrists from Kings College Hospital.

While numerous practitioners are currently experimenting with different formats, the idea of a model that eschews the post-show set-up of questions and answers is not entirely new. The National Theatre’s Platforms programme, which has been running almost as long as the theatre itself, is decidedly not post-show. Instead, the building runs regular events in the slot before its evening shows, ranging from straightforward discussions about the productions in the current repertoire to conversations that address the programme more obliquely. In the past, for example, Platforms have hosted numerous comedians and politicians, as well as a memorable encounter between atheist writer Philip Pullman and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

“It isn’t about being immediately reactive, audience wise, to what you’ve just seen,” says Platforms programmer Angus MacKechnie. “It’s either about making a choice to learn more about what you have seen on a previous occasion or coming to prepare yourself in advance of seeing it, usually on that night.” As a result, MacKechnie suggests that “it’s a different kind of commitment from audiences and we get a different kind of relationship with the audiences”. Because of the absence of an educational focus, MacKechnie explains that these events also offer audience members the opportunity to ask questions that they might not normally voice.

The desire to make critical conversations around theatre more inclusive and accessible is a feature that many of these initiatives share. The Theatre Club discussions might be guided by Costa, but the principle is that everyone in the room is equal and free to share their thoughts. “I am not the person with all the answers,” Costa makes clear, “I go in with as many questions as anyone else.” In line with this approach, Fuel’s co-directors Kate McGrath and Louise Blackwell make it clear that the Theatre Club events represent “one of the key ways that we are building new audiences and making our work more accessible”. Lorna Rees, one of Fuel’s local engagement specialists and a regular organiser of post-show events, puts her attitude simply: “for me there are no ‘silly questions’”.

Crucially, all of these events are about contact and conversation. MacKechnie insists that at the National Theatre “we don’t just drop the curtain and that’s it, you haven’t got any more contact with us”, while for Einhorn the Two Boroughs Theatre Club is about “prolonging and enriching” the theatregoing experiences of its participants. The conversation itself, meanwhile, is one in which exclusive, specialist vocabulary is exchanged for straightforward, honest expression. For Costa, it all comes down to a simple but vital distinction: “Theatre Club is a place where we don’t ‘speak’ theatre, we talk about theatre, and those are two very, very different things”.

Conversation Starters

  • Maddy Costa and Fuel have found that offering refreshments instantly shifts the mood of a post-show event, transforming it into a welcoming social context. As Kate McGrath and Louise Blackwell put it, “you don’t have to spend a lot on hospitality, but you do have to be hospitable”.
  • It can also help to move the discussion out of the theatre space. While the National Theatre’s Platforms have successfully used the stage, Lorna Rees suggests that sometimes the auditorium “can be quite intimidating and not conducive to discussion”.
  • Involving the audience does not have to be difficult or complicated. Costa explains, “I always start by just getting a quick show of hands, did you like it, did you not like it, something very simple like that”.
  • Angus MacKechnie recommends experimenting with the format and fitting it to the context of discussion. “In terms of format, form should follow function,” he says.
  • Fuel point out that it must be clear where and how the event is taking place, so they recommend sending out invitations, putting up flyers and making sure box office staff are fully briefed.

Photo: The Lakeside Theatre, Colchester.

Mess, Battersea Arts Centre

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Mess, despite its title, isn’t really that messy. And yet, at the same time, it’s extremely messy indeed. I should explain. The delicate subject matter that Caroline Horton’s show bravely and urgently tackles, that of eating disorders and more specifically anorexia nervosa (an illness that Horton has personal experience of), is about as messy as it gets. It’s a topic that’s still something of a taboo and that, even if we know we should be talking about it, has the tendency to make everyone in the room feel distinctly uncomfortable. To overcome this, Horton has created a form that speaks directly to the experience of suffering with anorexia, which is much more about control than it is about food. She has, in the meticulous style of the perfectionist, tidied it up.

This framing is both inspired and problematic. Before explaining why, I might as well admit right now that I came into Mess with a fair amount of critical baggage, which has doubtless influenced my perception of the show. I didn’t see it in Edinburgh, which I greatly regretted at the time, but I was a curious witness to the lively debate that surrounded the piece and its treatment of its subject matter. Several people raised concerns about the whimsy employed by Horton and the company in handling this issue, while Lyn Gardner suggested that responses to the show were sharply divided along gender lines, with men loving it and women expressing reservations. Picking up on this discussion, Matt Trueman brilliantly compared Mess with Cristian Ceresoli and Silvia Gallerano’s The Shit/La Merda – the most stunning show of the whole festival in my book, if in a so-searingly-intense-it-almost-scrapes-your-skin-off kind of way. No whimsy there.

Unlike the literal and figurative nakedness of The Shit, Mess bares only so much, covering the rest with flowers and fairy lights. Horton assumes the persona of Josephine, who together with her friend Boris (Hannah Boyde) and keyboard player Sistahl (Seiriol Davies) is creating a show about anorexia which, by its own admission, aims to “tackle issues and conquer stigma”. This isn’t the “proper” show though, Josephine is keen to emphasise – that will have a bigger stage and a revolve and a full orchestra. Instead, for now, we have to use our imaginations. Therefore a mound covered in thick pile bathmat becomes an “installation” representing anorexia; a light switched on downstage substitutes for a fridge, in which Josephine stores the single apple she struggles to eat for breakfast.

The story that Josephine and Boris tell us, with madcap sound effects and interruptions from Sistahl, is that of Josephine’s struggle with anorexia, her attempts to recover, and the anxious, awkward, but faithful support of Boris. Through gentle, endearing and often very funny touches, common concerns and misconceptions about anorexia are lightly addressed. As Josephine sternly tells us, “it is certainly not about silly girls being vain”. Instead, this is a disease that is inextricably linked with anxiety and control. Faced with the nerve-rattling challenges of life, brittle perfectionist Josephine’s coping mechanism involves colour-coding and spreadsheets, a regimented approach to life that gradually bleeds into her diet. She just wants to keep everything under her control. She just wants to win.

This irresistible desire for control is wittily reflected in the staging, over which Josephine repeatedly asserts her stubborn will. Sistahl is chided for his mischievous interventions, while we are unequivocally told – to Boris’s visible dismay – that this play will have no real beginning and no real end. The overflowing structure is poignantly fitting; it’s hard to determine when an eating disorder starts, and it never quite releases its grip on one’s life. Meanwhile, the precisely arranged prettiness of the production, which has faced criticism from some for its candyfloss lightness, is just another trait of the perfectionist. It’s like the grimace of a smile Horton pastes over Josephine’s fragile, wide-eyed face; a desperate assertion of “I’m OK”.

But for all its elegance and intelligence, Mess‘s perfect marriage of form and content begs a few questions. While the show gradually peels away the layers of Josephine’s illness, revealing the vulnerability beneath, one layer remains; there’s always a light coating of sugar. This reluctance to bare all is understandable, as is Horton’s decision to address a very personal subject through a fictional device, and given the anorexic’s need for control it feels apt that a remnant of the mask remains. Yet still there is the concern that this final shred of theatrical clothing obscures something, drawing attention instead to its own cleverness.

Similarly, the pleasing contrivance of the meta-theatrical structure might gorgeously echo Josephine’s compulsion for organisation – “it would have looked like an accident, but actually it would all be beautifully planned,” she smiles – but it also makes me wonder whether it’s perhaps a little too contrived. While apologising for the makeshift costumes and the lack of a revolve, Josephine assures us that “the real version will be even more real”, archly skewering the hierarchy of reality that is paradoxically imposed on a genre steeped in artifice. Does pointing to this contrivance dilute the truths that the show so vitally exposes within its fictional frame? Or is it in fact just an honest reproach to our self-deceiving fetish for “authenticity”? I can’t quite decide.

Whatever my reservations, though, fears that Horton’s sugary-sweet approach might trivialise its subject matter turn out to be unfounded. Instead, she gently opens it up for discussion. Acutely aware of the difficulties that attend conversations about anorexia, the piece is at pains to set audience members at ease, jokingly acknowledging the discomfort it might provoke. By taking on all the awkwardness, mainly through Boris’s blinking unease in attempting to cope with the situation in which he finds himself, it removes any pressure on those watching. With this possible tension diffused, we can just watch.

At the same time, this tactic does not prevent the show from broaching the darker aspects of its subject. The delicately handled sequence in which Josephine toys with paper-thin slices of apple, unable to put even one in her mouth, is heartbreaking, as is the extended monologue in which she observes another anorexic girl, hating her for the skeletal angularity of her starved body. In the most fearless of the play’s scenes, Josephine even admits that anorexia “feels amazing at times”, rhapsodising about the illness with a distorted logic that is both terrifying and captivating.

The most effective and lasting image of anorexia that emerges from Mess, however, is of its imposition of distance. Josephine describes suffering from the illness as being like snorkelling, or looking down from the top of a tall building; the world is muffled, far away. Anorexia serves, like the white duvet Josephine protectively clings to, as a buffer against the challenges of life. Perhaps it’s only appropriate, then, that the show itself always keeps us just that little bit distanced.