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live artist, poet, and general doer of things

Archive for January, 2010

Recent Theatre Rant

I spent a month studying at GITIS in Moscow at the end of last year, which apart from giving me access to an astonishing and foundational theatre culture, gave me a real appetite for Chekhov — undiminished by watching four hour performances, or by achingly boring meandering table rehearsals, or by drowning in Stanislavskian doctrine. So I was pretty excited by the prospect of Filter‘s “ground-breaking” production of Three Sisters at the Lyric. As the programme note argues, 150 years after his birth, Chekhov is ripe for reinvention, for bringing up to date and mercilessly and excitingly mutilating in the way Shakespeare has been for decades.

Sadly, though it’s a good, solid, entertaining, fast-paced &c production, it just isn’t that innovative. It’s in modern dress, sure, and uses modern interpretations of characters. (The blurb and advertising calls this “getting to the essence” of the play — actually it’s just putting characters in a different social context so that they’re more readily understandable to contemporary audiences. So Natasha’s provincial petit-bourgeois is played as an embarrassed country town girl transforming into a ghastly yummy mummy.) There’s a roughly bare stage, and a handful of Brechtian devices. This all works, mostly, and it does help keep the production moving, and keep it interesting. Sadly Filter’s trademark use of sound is mostly an awkward add-on, and some of the “getting to the essence” just becomes Stating The Premise with a hatchet, but it is a good show.

But I want so much more! Is this really what counts for innovation in Chekhov? Tear down that fourth wall. Have characters bouncing around on spacehoppers. Ask the audience what they think. Throw away the script and improvise the whole thing, or have the author come onstage and heckle the actors (actually, I did see that at the Fomenko in Moscow). Ask audience members to roleplay being Natasha to see what it feels like. Do something that isn’t about creating entertaining (thought-provoking if we’re lucky) spectacle. Chekhov can take it! Respect and love the text, yes, but reinvent the form! Contemporary European theatre is laughing at us. Seriously.

I’m not saying we have to go down the route of post-dramatic theatre. Too often that becomes disempowering navel-gazing, the post-modern self deconstructed to the point of total incomprehensibility and social irrelevance. But there are other options. I’ve got myself quite excited about the way of thinking in Interacting Arts magazine (a Swedish publication made five years ago): the manifesto-style call-out for participation in the arts. Empowering, social, entertaining, relevant, important. Open source art: art for everyone, by everyone. They write:

The step from spectator to participant means the democratization of culture, as power over the means of suggestion is then distributed among the many. Participatory arts means that whatever suggestions the participants produce influence what suggestions they recieve, what suggestions other participants recieve, and how these suggestions affect the possibilities of continuing interaction. The framework that diminishes our participation is socially constructed, not dependent on any particular medium. The medium itself rarely limits our opportunities to participate, the understanding of how we are to percieve it does. We could rise up from the spectator seat, climb onto the stage and shout “to be or not to be!” or spray-paint the paintings in an art gallery, but we don’t, because we know our place. We are spectators.

And we do have some of that happening. The best, most innovative and most exciting thing I’ve seen recently was Nic Green’s Trilogy at the BAC. It wasn’t just that the show was a straightforward and active piece of contemporary feminism, happily unabashed at the word “feminist” — because that in itself is very important. It was that the show actively engaged with both the local community (getting 100 local women of all backgrounds and shapes to join in the celebratory nude dance) and the evening’s audience (recruiting the whole crowd for a semi-nude chorus of Jerusalem); it was that the production was an active part of an interactive website and activist social experiment, both an action in its campaign and an encouragement to participate; it was that the performers adopted an honest, simple form of performative direct address that just blazed through post-modern angsts of the performative self with simplicity and judgement; and it was that, though all of these are very new techniques of experimental theatre, and though the content was intellectually and politically challenging, it has been a massive box office  and critical success, both at the Fringe 09 and a mid-length run at the BAC. People bloody loved the show. These techniques are not only worthwhile, not only innovative, but also popular and successful.

So please, let’s bring them into the great texts, and into the new ones, let’s explore them all, let’s redefine theatre. Let’s try and bring not just the content but the form up to date, in relevant and engaging ways. Please.

(keeping it) Real

I’m working in Southend at the moment on a project called The Real Britain. It’s a launch for East 15‘s new Clifftown Studios there — a site-specific theatre and performance series on the history of the UK. The driving idea is that the UK is and always had been an immigrant culture, and so our audiences, as they walk through the different rooms of the building, will go on a journey through the experiences of different immigrants in different times, from the Romans to the Poles.

Now that’s a UK I can believe in. Problematic, motley, isolated and creative. That’s long been the vision of the UK I’ve had — a wild combination of different peoples, settlers and invaders, colonised and colonising. The BNP’s farcical “indigenous” being a vague sort of synonym  for “looks sort of white”. Go back far enough in any British family’s history and you’ll find it’s an immigranmt family; it only takes five generations, or 150 years, to find that in my family, and we would appear as British as they come. So I’m finding it a really worthwhile project to be working on.

I’m assistant directing on a segment set in a 1970s Green Street back alley between a Chinese and a Pakistani restaurant; it’s exploring those two key immigrant experiences, and also the rising culture clash as a result of the large-scale immigration of the 40s and 50s. We’re also looking at refugees and asylum, something I’m really passionate about, so we’re managing to work some of that in as well.

There’s a real race issue. The class group is mainly white, with a few internationals. So how to portray Pakistanis and Chinese? We’ve taken the decision to just run with it, and as we have to cast across race, to do it fully and make a point of it. So our gang of white racists include a Burmese, a Nigerian and a Greek, while our Chinese family are all white. We’re having some fun play with language as well, looking at racial stereotyping and performace — the waitresses all speak broken Engrish when customers are around, but talk totally ordinarily amongst themselves. It’s good for a laugh, it solves an issue, and it makes a point.

The structure of the theatre project is also something I really believe in: collaboration across groups and institutions, theatre that breaks the confines of the simple stage-play, that immerses audiences in experiences, that discusses important issue in an entertaining way, and which is being combined with workshops and panel discussions to create what should be an empowering weekend. We hope! Of course, all of that brings organisational difficulties, confusions, rushed rehearsals, stress and so forth — but I’m optimistic. Come and see it if you’re around.

On the Other Hand

(crossposted)

Luke Wright was one of the people who got me writing poetry. At an Edinburgh Fringe a few years ago, after a year where I’d finally started to get into rap and hip-hop, I spent a blissful two days at his poetry tent — a free event space on the Meadows where he’d invited some of Britain’s best and craziest performance poets to perform, all day long. It was seeing that, combined with catching the amazing Baba Brinkman and especially his clarion call The Rhyme Renaissance, that got me thinking I really could do performance poetry and slam. I wrote Introduction about my rap/poetry anxieties soon after (it still in part holds true for me) and I’ve never looked back.

So I’ve got a major soft spot for him. Quite apart from being a great poet, he’s done a lot to revitalise and promote the form. I do think performance poetry needs more shameless self-promoters. But there’s a downside to that,  when an ignorant media can make it seem like these guys are all there is. Take this article in the Independent, which LW posted the other day:

Performance poetry. It’s not a phrase that strikes joy into many people’s hearts – there’s a fear it’ll be some fop emoting furiously about a penchant for self-harm, or a lame attempt to make an archaic art form ‘hip’.

Bollocks! Is that really what most people think of when they hear the words “performance poetry”? “Open mic” or “spoken word”, but we’ve worked so hard for so long to make poetry exciting and immediate! Is this just journalistic excess, or is something really wrong? Also:

But one young poetry collective is proving it doesn’t have to be that way.

Bollocks! Self-promoters (and thus poetry-promoters) we need, but we don’t need the way journalists latch onto that and make it seem like one group, one person is all their is. This isn’t the fault of Aisle 16, I’m not saying that in any way; I just hate the way it’s so easy to make it seem like there isn’t a massive community, a massive culture behind what celebrities we have, doing really exciting things. We’ve got to be careful not to encourage the understanding of that whenever we can.

I’m reminded of this Times article about Farrago. It’s a bit more respectful to the whole culture, it says “Every week in small theatres and pubs across Britain, poetry is being dragged back into popular culture by a new generation”, showing the widespread collectivity of the scene, but at the same time it’s so basic, so simple and so unaware of how big this thing is now. Poetry is big! Isn’t it? I mean, Farrago’s been going for a decade and a half! Don’t we get more recognition than that now?

Or are we all overcome with hubris? Are people much less aware of what we’re trying to do than we thought? I believe so passionately in the power of art to give people voices, to make essential testimony, to empower people to take charge of their lives, I really do. I love even the worst slam poetry because someone is getting to speak and people are getting to listen. I really believe in making that happen and spreading it out. So in that mission, in this celebration of the Year of the Poet, there’s a lot of work to be done, and a lot of pitfalls to avoid. But we can do it. Right?

Right.

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