Open Sourcing Theatre
I kicked off the day with running a workshop in the idea of open sourcing theatre. This is something I’ve been working on for a while – for the last four years or so I’ve been running my theatre projects under the rubric of “Open Source Theatre”, as a fluid collective of people and ideas interested in applying some of the ideas of the open source software movement to the performing arts. That might sound like a bit of a stretch, and we’ve certainly taken the metaphor for a walk. The brief manifesto I’ve been able to write is oblique and suggestive rather than prescriptive. So this workshop was a facilitated open space discussion designed to talk through the idea, the metaphor, to open up the idea of open source to wider discussion. I was interested in engaging a bunch of smart, radical theatre-makers in what I’m thinking about and seeing where it went.
I was, first of all, taken aback by the level of engagement and interest. This is an idea I’ve been living with for quite a while, so to see that a bunch of other folk were excited by it too was really gratifying. The open space discussion explored a huge range of questions, including:
- How can we make performance spaces feel safe for audiences to participate?
- What are the relationships of improv and street theatre to open source theatre?
- Can we apply open source ideas to classical theatre?
- What’s the role of contemporary communications techs, like Twitter, to the theatre space, and to the open source theatre space?
- Whenever you open something up to participation, you open it up to risk, to manipulation, to misuse. How do we manage this?
- How do you produce strong aesthetics through open sourcing? How do you combine so many threads into one through-line?
- In what ways are our modern theatres not open? What are the barriers to participation?
The two hours of discussion never reached definite conclusions, and weren’t really meant to: instead, we mapped out the territory of what open source might be. When I introduced the workshop I spoke of the things I’ve played with so far, and how they’re each a partial approach to open source: interactivity in the theatre space, democratic devising processes, extensive documentation, theatre that extends beyond the theatre space, a conscious effort to perform in accessible and open contexts. By the end of the discussion, I’d reached the conclusion that “open source theatre” is more a family of techniques designed to increase empowerment and participation in theatre, rather than, as I’d once thoughts, a specific manifesto of production. In any case, my thinking was revitalised by opening it up, by open sourcing it in a way, to this group of makers. I’m burning to write a new OST text.
The morning discussions explore the territory of the previous evening – I really appreciate this format, allowing for reflection and a settling of ideas before chewing them over. Today we got stuck into the ideas of Simone Senzacqua’s and Lisa Peschel’s talks.
Alongside being inspired by Teatro Valle, many of us had economic questions. When everything is free, how do artists get paid? For me, this is a question of survival in a neoliberal society: I want to be part of free, communal spaces, but I am also subject to the laws of a neoliberal country, and have to find a way to survive. I see spaces like Teatro Valle as laboratories, imaginaria, places where we can envision and practise other ways of being together – but until we all live in those spaces, we have to find ways to survive, to compromise.
The question of why taxes should pay for art came up. This, of course, is a big public debate in the UK right now. In many ways I’m tired of rehearsing it, but at the same time I’m recognising that the arts community has totally failed to make as strong a case as it needs to. I’ve spoken a little on Twitter about why I think that endless economic impact studies are the wrong route – we can talk as much as we like about how the arts make more revenue in VAT than is spent on funding them, but still people aren’t convinced. They’re also never convinced by the romantic Great Art argument. And while we make these failed arguments, people will continue to see public funding of the arts as a failed community relationship, because conservative economists want us to think of tax as a process of exchange rather than of redistribution. The best writing I’ve seen on this is this study on public messaging, which encourages us to think of art as creating ripple effects throughout a community, of being something made by, of, for, and belonging to a wide community. This is something I can talk about at great length – I love making art and experiencing art, but I also think it’s vital that art is actively opening itself to wider communities if it is to survive and to be valued.
Lisa Peschel’s talk explored the idea that art is a tool of survival, that in times of crisis people have a burning need for art. Several folk asked the question: why is it that so much of our population doesn’t feel that burning need for art? This is a question that I actually emphatically disagree with, and it relies I think on a false argument. Maybe it’s because I grew up somewhere where folk music is such a huge part of our culture, but I think it’s wider than that. There’s a reason that hip hop is now one of the most popular art forms in the world, and it certainly goes beyond mere entertainment and spectacle. I think that most people do burn for art, but that self-defining artists don’t always do a great job of meeting that need. Someone in the group said that it’s maybe less of a question of bringing more people into theatres, and more a question of theatre learning how to meet more people. There’s a risk here of being patronising, of “taking theatre to the people” – I think it’s more about learning what theatre “the people” already have, and being part of that.
As a way of getting into the experience of the art from Terezin (see yesterday’s blog), Lisa Peschel organised a public reading of her new translation of Georg Kafka’a Death of Orpheus, an extraordinary play written in the ghetto / transit camp. It’s part Greek tragedy, part symbolist drama – a retelling of the Greek myth as a difficult and beautiful exploration of the purpose an ends of art. It’s in no way explicitly political, but it is all about art as a means of survival. Georg Kafka’s own story is terrifying and illuminating: he had the camp job of typing up transport lists, and when he had to type his own mother’s name for transport to Auschwitz, he chose to go with her.. She in all likelihood died as soon as she arrived there; he much later. His act of writing thus carries great meaning.
In the play, Orpheus’s band of shepherds beg him to begin singing his poetry again, to bring them beauty and to bring fertility back to their land. He refuses, unable to conceive of art in the face of great suffering and the loss of Eurydice. Hermes arrives with an alternative offer: a new, black-wrapped lyre that will bring death and finality. Orpheus accepts the new poetry, and plays the lyre, bringing on a Dionysian ritual that sees him torn apart by maenads. It’s an extraordinary way to tell the myth, so clearly within a context where art is bound up with life and death. It gave us a very real artistic context for our conversations.
The second afternoon presentation was from Andrea Moon, an ambassador for the Frequent Flyers Productions, a group offering low-flying trapeze / aerial dance workshops to at-risk or in crisis youth. She spoke very movingly about the empowering effect that the programme has had on individuals. That by introducing a controlled moment of crisis – asking the young people to fly, and giving them strategies to do so – they offered the participants an experience that gave them a way to deal with the daily crisis of their lives. This is a kind of artistic practise as social work that I’m very much in favour of. At the same time, I found myself thinking about political questions: When we do this kind of work, what is it’s political context? When we’re talking about journeys of self-fulfilment, are we also addressing the socio-economic context which oppresses and represses us? How does work with the individual relate to work with society?
First of the night was Ars Mechanica’s Show and Tell Alexander Bell, a post-dramatic physical performance looking at the history of communications technologies. It had beautiful moments of movement and some very funny texts; while I found it hard to understand the through-line of thought and action, I found many elements to enjoy and appreciate. Most exciting to me was the use of mobile phone texting during the performance – many audience members were communicating directly with an on-stage character, and the whole show was punctuated by regular text message alert noises. This was wonderful! Occasionally the noise would be hilariously appropriately timed, but it was even better when it was aesthetically inappropriate: a regular reminder of the role of communications in our lives now, of the artificiality of the theatre space, the illicit nature of texting, and plenty more. More of this, please.
Second was The Body Project’s The Rose Parade. This was verbatim theatre, performing women’s stories of survival – survival of oppression, rape, genocide, injury, illness, and life itself. The performance was polished and affecting, with all that you’d want from good dramatic theatre – a valuable performance. At the same time, I was thinking a lot about the political questions of the form: again, what does it mean to present stories of personal overcoming and fulfilment within a wider political context? (Is this a very American thing to do?) What is the role of verbatim theatre as opposed to documentary? What does it mean to heighten, dramatise and aestheticise these stories, instead of plainly presenting them? What is the power relationship there, and what does it mean?
More on these questions tomorrow, when we’ll be discussing both performances as a group.