Mother Figures


Originally written for Exeunt.

Selma Dimitrijevic and I first began talking about her play Gods Are Fallen and All Safety Gone almost three years ago. It’s been a long, meandering, stop-and-start conversation, via sitting in on rehearsals, watching performances and dress runs, chatting over coffee in various cafes in various cities. Aptly enough, Gods is also about those conversations that stretch over years: the well-worn family routines that regularly pause, rewind and restart.

The play’s history is even longer. Selma’s delicate depiction of one mother-daughter relationship was originally written as a commission for Oran Mor’s A Play, A Pie and A Pint series back in 2008. Across just four scenes, Gods Are Fallen and All Safety Gone (the title borrowed from John Steinbeck) suggests a lifetime’s worth of love and resentment between thirty-something Annie and her mother, their repeated small talk increasingly charged. It’s a small story, but one that reaches far beyond its two characters.

When it was produced at Oran Mor, Gods got what Selma describes as a “very naturalistic” treatment. Watching it, she felt that something was missing. “It was one of those things when you see a piece of work that you have made and there’s nothing you can say that is wrong with it,” Selma explains, “but the product wasn’t necessarily the kind of thetare that excites me. So I was looking at it and thinking ‘how did I help make this piece of theatre that I wouldn’t be that excited about as a theatregoer?’”

But it was only after encountering a Russian version of the play directed by Viktor Ryzhakov in 2011 that Selma thought of having a stab at it herself. Despite failing to get into the country to see it, Selma later got hold of a recording of the performance and found herself incredibly moved by it. “I saw a video of it and it just made me cry,” she remembers. “It went straight to the heart of what I was trying to do.” Ryzhakov cast two women of the same age as mother and daughter and contained them inside a pen for the length of the play, delivering the dialogue at high speed. Selma saw something in her play that went beyond domestic realism.

But it was only after encountering a Russian version of the play directed by Viktor Ryzhakov in 2011 that Selma thought of having a stab at it herself. Despite failing to get into the country to see it, Selma later got hold of a recording of the performance and found herself incredibly moved by it. “I saw a video of it and it just made me cry,” she remembers. “It went straight to the heart of what I was trying to do.” Ryzhakov cast two women of the same age as mother and daughter and contained them inside a pen for the length of the play, delivering the dialogue at high speed. Selma saw something in her play that went beyond domestic realism.

“Once I saw that, I thought actually I want to do my own attempt,” says Selma, explaining that her intention was to approach it “just as a piece of writing”. She got this opportunity through her company Greyscale, who were offered a spot in the 2012 Almeida Festival. Now, eight years after first writing the play, she tells me that the text of Gods feels oddly distant. “I kind of keep forgetting that I wrote it,” she laughs.

What’s most distinctive about Selma’s version of Gods – at least at first glance – is her decision to cast male actors Sean Campion and Scott Turnbull as mother and daughter. At the time when the Almeida Festival opportunity arose, Selma was working with the pair on Greyscale’s Theatre Brothel and something about their relationship resonated with the relationship in the play. It was, as she puts it, an artistic choice that came from the gut rather than the head.

“I’m a big believer, as a writer, that my subconscious is a better writer than I am,” Selma says by way of explanation. “So when things just come out, they’re usually much better than when I think about it. And the same thing as a director: I bring a lot of things into the rehearsal room that are instinctive. I can’t explain why.”

She’s been reluctant, therefore, to identify any intention behind the cross-gender casting, preferring to keep readings open. And while on the page this casting choice is what grabs attention, in performance it becomes almost irrelevant. Once accepted, the fact that these two female characters are being played by men seems perfectly natural. After all, theatre is always asking us to believe that one thing stands for something else. There’s no attempt by Sean and Scott to ape femininity; these are demonstrably two men, but also two women.

As I put it to Selma during that initial rehearsal period, the production’s non-naturalistic casting somehow frees it from the burden of specificity. Because these two men are clearly not attempting to represent two “real” women, the piece is allowed to speak through and with them, elevating it to something far more wide-reaching than the bare bones of the script might suggest. Discussing the casting now, Selma’s stance is simple and equivocal: “It just feels right, and as long as it feels right and interesting and exciting, and people react to it in an interesting way, we’ll keep doing it.”

Looking back on audience’s reactions to the casting during their latest tour, Selma draws attention to one response in particular. “This really interesting thing happened: there were a couple of men who mentioned that they don’t know if they would come and see it if it was just a show about a mother and daughter, and that they might not have connected with it personally if it was just a real mother and daughter and two actresses on stage. I don’t know how to feel about that.” It points to how, culturally, we still see narratives of female relationships as being aimed primarily at women, whereas narratives of male relationships are read as universal. As Selma puts it, “if it’s one, it’s a minority narrative, and if it’s the other then it’s for everyone”.

Other responses to Selma’s casting choice were more indignant. “A lot of people asked me how did the writer feel about me messing with their play,” she says, “which always makes me laugh.” For Selma, this complaint has a familiar ring, revealing much about the differing attitudes towards writers and directors in British theatre. “It feels a little bit like yes, you can do things to my play, but only if you do them well,” she continues. “Well of course, I wouldn’t be suggesting things otherwise. My intention is to do it well; I can’t promise I will.”

Selma’s other intriguing creative choice in directing Gods was to put a real mother and daughter on stage with Sean and Scott, quietly looking on from the back of the stage. Selma describes the pair as a kind of “amplifier” for the performance: “We’ve never had mother and daughter react in any emotional way if either audience or actors weren’t genuinely vibrating with emotion. But if it it is an emotional show, they make it a bit more emotional, and if it’s a funny one then them laughing on stage makes it even funnier.”

And although Selma insists that she doesn’t make “theatre with an agenda”, she has noticed over the life span of the show that it is also capable of making small changes in the lives of the mothers and daughters who take part. “They get to spend an hour looking at each other, talking to each other afterwards, as two adults, and see each other slightly differently after the show,” says Selma. Having lost her own mother before directing the play – “I’ve completely missed that opportunity” – these small moments of connection are particularly precious.

As much as Selma insists on the importance of instinct and chance in her work, with Greyscale she has been working hard over the last few years to give those instincts as much breathing space as possible. “It’s a combination of us being lucky,” she says of choices like the casting in Gods, “but also being good at creating circumstances in which things like that can happen.”

That means spending time together, sharing creative experiences, seeing other theatre. Selma explains that she, Sean and Scott have seen and talked about several shows together and have participated in a range of different workshops, giving them a shared toolkit and vocabulary. “We’ve filled the last twelve months with things for us to do together that have to do with art but don’t need a result and just allow space to be together and to talk about things,” she says. It is, she adds, “the poor man’s way of trying to do the ensemble thing”.

After three years of working on the play on and off, it’s now “properly like family”. Like the mother and daughter in her play, Selma and her team have a shared history, shared conversations and shared irritations – so much so that she suggests it’s barely acting for Sean and Scott anymore. “They’ve been repeating it for three years, so now when mother or daughter gets annoyed about things happening over and over again, they have it in their core, because they’ve done it so many times – they don’t have to pretend that they’re annoyed.”

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.