New Voices in Edinburgh

As part of the giddy, hectic and slightly insane experience that was my first fringe, I was lucky enough (thanks to IdeasTap) to catch all five plays that made up the Old Vic New Voices Edinburgh season at Underbelly. This is just one example of what seems to be a growing trend towards curation within the uncurated, amorphous bubble of the festival; other models along these lines include those adopted by Escalator East to Edinburgh and Northern Stage at St Stephen’s. While the hit and miss nature of the fringe is part of its quirky charm, there is something quite comforting about having these reliable miniature programmes to retreat to through the haze of clumsy adaptations and misplaced whimsy.

The emphasis of the Old Vic New Voices programme is, unsurprisingly, very much on “new writing”. The pieces are small, with a bias towards monologues and two-handers, but the writing and productions all proved themselves to be solid and often exciting. The whole season was, as Edinburgh goes, a pretty safe bet, though without the safeness of subject matter that implies. The advantage of a curated programme was also in seeing how these different pieces refracted through one another, experiencing them both as standalone plays and as part of a wider context.

If they have a future life, which I suspect they will, it would be fascinating to see these plays reformulated into double bills. Chapel Street and One Hour Only would be my top pick for a pairing, but Bitch Boxer and Strong Arm could also make a fascinating juxtaposition. While Edinburgh can easily become a distorted blur of production after production, seeing pieces whose placement alongside one another actively informs their reception is a refreshing and intriguing exercise. Here are a few more of my thoughts on the programme …

Glory Dazed

While his friends come home in coffins and wheelchairs, Ray knows that war can make you lose something other than life or limb. Returning to Doncaster with frustrated aggression and tortured memories, the only thing that Ray is any good at these days is fighting. But there’s no memorial service or prosthetic aid for being messed up in the head. Read more …

Bitch Boxer

Every fighter has a reason.

That’s the thinking behind this new show written and performed by Charlotte Josephine, taking a particularly timely dive into the world of female boxing. Read more …

One Hour Only

AJ’s mates have bought him a banging present for his 21st birthday – quite literally.

Out of place in a classy London brothel, the gift he ends up with is Marly, a cash-strapped student in her first night on the job, with whom he has more in common than he expected. Read more …

Strong Arm

Sporting ambition and athletic excellence are high on the national consciousness as the country continues to ride the wave of Olympic success. When competitiveness goes up a weight class into pure obsession, however, that same determination to succeed becomes altogether more disturbing. Read more …

Chapel Street

On Chapel Street, “every week it’s shit”.

Same people, same bars, same drinks. Or so we’re told by Joe and Kirsty, both out on a Friday night and each with their own reasons to seek oblivion. Through these two characters, Luke Barnes’ viciously funny and quietly devastating two-hander sketches out a searing, booze-stained portrait of the Pro-Plus generation, grabbing at their next energy kick while putting off tomorrow. Read more …

 

A Tissue of Quotations: Theatre & Authorship

To state that theatre is an essentially ephemeral art form would seem to be a reiteration of the obvious. The distinct nature of performance lies in its liveness, its specific relationship with a specific set of audience members at a specific moment in time, none of which can ever quite be replicated. At a less specific level, each production is a crystallized present moment, an entity that exists only for the length of its run and is determined by a very particular set of choices and aesthetics. Theatre is, at its heart, a fleeting phenomenon.

Yet we remain, at least in British theatre culture, obsessed with preservation, with legacy, and with the rigidly hierarchical process of pinning a production down to a single authoritative source for the purposes of that preservation. Hence the primacy of the “author”. And I was, initially, as unquestioningly compliant with this notion of authorship as anyone else; it is, after all, easier for the purposes of a review to assume that the content of the piece has been born from the mind of the writer and to conflate all connecting themes, threads and resonances with the intention of the playwright. But such assumptions have been bracingly unsettled by the recent focus on British theatre’s false dichotomy between “new writing” and “new work”, a dichotomy which I would argue has deeply ingrained notions of authorship at its core.

There are many perceived differences underlying this opposition between what has been loosely referred to as text-based and non-text-based theatre, differences connected with narrative, character, aesthetic etc., but it seems to me that the unifying aspect at their centre is the presence or absence of a single author. Text-based work is typically associated with naturalism, linear narrative and a coherent driving “message” because it is supposed to be the creation of one dominant creator, one authorial “voice”, with all other elements of the production harnessed to serve the vision outlined in the text. Non-text-based work, by contrast, is seen as eschewing all of these notions of linearity and coherence because it has been conceived by a devising ensemble and consists of a multiplicity of voices.

Of course, such assumptions are often not the case in practice, but while the moment of performative realisation may be more democratic, it is the author whose name will remain attached to the work long after its production. For this reason, as Kat Joyce eloquently argues in her guest column over at Exeunt, work that does not have a clear hierarchy of authorship and that explicitly depends upon the nature of its liveness risks being obliterated by the very text-based process of historicising, thus perpetuating the supremacy of scripted work. In Joyce’s words:

“At its deepest level, does a system which fixates on individuals and playtexts also radically undervalue the potentials and possibilities of live performance in all its unfixed, unstable, temporary glory?”

It is clear – at least to me – that we need to rethink our rigid definition of authorship if we are not to devalue the moment of performance and neglect a huge swathe of this country’s theatrical output. But this isn’t just about recognising the work of devising companies, because recognition alone does not necessarily smash down the persistent divide between text-based and non-text-based work (undeniably reductive and misleading labels, but ones which are handy for the purposes of this piece). Negotiating that divide and the reasons behind it is much trickier.

It boils down, I think, to an idea of authorship that extends beyond the realm of theatre and performance. We are part of a literary culture which is, as Roland Barthes put it in his seminal essay “The Death of the Author”, “tyrannically centred on the author”. Throughout secondary school, students are encouraged to interrogate texts in order to unveil their “meaning”, as if reading was one long act of detective work, with the author’s intention enshrined at its centre. While university courses in literature explore a much more nuanced approach to textual analysis, there is a general subscription to the prominence of the author in all text-based art forms, an approach that has insidiously crept into understandings of theatre.

Because such an author-centred approach is key to our culture, much talk in theatre has been given over to “serving the text”, “serving the writer”, “staying true to the writer’s intention” etc. Within such a model, all other elements of a production become tools to illuminate the writer’s purpose and the other creatives involved are viewed as little more than vehicles to convey an overarching authorial “message”.

The problems and contradictions inherent in this model can be illustrated by a couple of examples drawn from conversations I’ve had with theatremakers, examples which I’m sure are not unique. Discussing feedback that she’d received about her interpretation of Gods Are Fallen and All Safety Gone, Greyscale’s Selma Dimitrijevic told me that audiences seemed outraged about certain directorial choices that she had made (the most discussed of these being her decision to cast male actors as women) until they became aware that she had also written the play. Apparently directorial interpretation is only acceptable when it originates from the writer. On a slightly different note, Thomas Eccleshare expressed his frustration with the fact that, despite creating work for two years with his company Dancing Brick, it was only when he won the Verity Bargate Award that he earned the label of “writer”, with devised work remaining stubbornly excluded from the narrow category of new writing.

Joyce’s column, which draws partly from her own experiences as the co-artistic director of physical theatre ensemble tangled feet, again expands on the difficulties posed by a culture which places a disproportionate value on the written text, while Hannah Silva has blogged on numerous occasions about the restrictive definition of new writing that prevails in this country and the difficulties of negotiating that definition (I can’t track down the exact piece that I have filed away at the back of my mind, but read her blog for some fantastic reflections and provocations about writing for theatre).

There’s much more to say about how the divide between text-based and non-text-based theatre has been reinforced, particularly through the Arts Council funded new writing drives referred to in Alex Chisholm’s essay for Exeunt, but I’d like to remain focused on this central notion of authorship, its complexities and how it might be reconfigured. Barthes, who I have already quoted, provides one answer to how the false idol of the author might be displaced. He describes the text as “a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.” In other words, no piece of writing is truly original and all writers are continually quoting their antecedents.

If we accept Barthes’ definition of the text, authorship is at best an act of curation and interpretation – not, really, all that different from directing. In a staunch defence of the writer’s intention in his essay “Interpretation – To Impose or Explain”, playwright Arnold Wesker posited this argument in order to deride it, laughing at the possibility of “interpreting an interpretation”. I would contest, however, that this is not such a ridiculous idea. Not only might a writer produce an interpretation rather than an utterly original source text, but that interpretation might be jointly (re)interpreted by director, performers and entire creative team in collaboration with the writer (or writers), acknowledging that theatre is an emphatically collaborative art form.

It is also worth briefly interrogating the term “text”, which I’ve been carelessly throwing around as if it had one single, fixed meaning. This term is generally interpreted to mean the written text in the form of a conventional script, but it can – and perhaps should – be expanded to include the entire dramatic text, encompassing all elements of a production and its reception, acknowledging a circuit that is completed by the audience. I’m reminded of another discussion with Selma Dimitrijevic, in which there was some consideration of the similarly unstable word “play”; Selma said that she typically interprets this to refer exclusively to the written script, but it is used interchangeably by critics, at some times indicating the script and at other times the whole production.

Bringing critics into the mix flags up their (our?) role in this binary. There is a tendency, conscious or not, to write separately about all the individual elements of a production, isolating writing, direction, design and performance in a sort of criticism by numbers that I know I’ve been guilty of employing. This is often a case of convenience and is to an extent inevitable; without having observed the process, which is another debate entirely, it’s impossible to know who was responsible for each and every creative choice. Yet there is a danger, because criticism again holds a certain lasting currency by virtue of its written format, that a failure by critics to acknowledge the collaborative nature of work will perpetuate the schism. I’m not yet entirely sure how this danger can be overcome, but it’s worth considering.

Having scratched away a little, if only fairly superficially, at the notion of authorship, how might it be possible to rethink the format of the legacising theatrical (written) text? To answer this question, it’s also necessary to answer the question of what a playtext is for. Physical theatre company Square Peg summed it up nicely in a response on Twitter: “Is the script the beginning or the end of a process? A document or an instruction? Can it not be both?” I’d agree that the written element of theatre has a dual role, acting as a (non-fixed) jumping off point and as a form of preservation, though both of these twin roles are slippery.

Some intriguing questions were asked via a recent conversation on Twitter between Bryony Kimmings and Oberon Books, with contributions from others, which was one of the catalysts for nailing down these thoughts. As later blogged by Kimmings, she wanted to explore whether the kind of art she creates could be published as a script, and if so what form that might take. She asked: “How does a live artist that plays in the Cabaret space at Soho Theatre and just did her first stand up gig get her work published … does she need to?”

The need could be quite persuasively argued as a form of documentation and legacy, a way of recording live art in the same way as text-based theatre. The question of format, however, is less easily answered. Would it be a script detailing the original performance, or a DIY kit allowing space for interpretation? It all depends, of course, on whether a work is intended to be produced again. At the risk of banging on about it yet again, here I think it’s interesting to bring in the example of Three Kingdoms (which also, though I won’t discuss it here, provides an interesting challenge to British theatre’s text bias, possibly offering a way to bridge the gap). Here is a playscript that differs so dramatically from Sebastian Nübling’s production that they are really two different texts. Were anyone brave enough to attempt another production, would they start from Simon Stephens’ script or from its collective realisation on stage?

Much more could be written on this thorny issue, but for now I’d just like to bring in one final example that complicates matters even further. In the absence of a space at Edinburgh this year, Forest Fringe have made the fascinating decision to “create a performance space built not of bricks and mortar but paper and ink”. Paper Stages is a book co-authored (again destabilising the concept of a single voice of authority) by a wide range of Forest Fringe artists and made available for festival-goers to perform themselves. There will as a result be multiple dramatic texts, many performed in the absence of audiences and without documentation, giving fluid meaning to ideas of authorship, performance, reception and collaboration.

A script is not fixed or indeed finished until the moment of performance and reception, but perhaps a performance’s documentation is equally unfixed. To come full circle, theatre is ephemeral. While preservation remains an important concern for artists attempting to secure their place within a text-biased culture, there is an argument that to resist the uniqueness of live performance is essentially futile. We should be celebrating liveness, not attempting to solidify it.

 

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.