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A Politics of Festival: Blog for Forest Fringe

The folks at Forest Fringe, the free and radical performance space at the Edinburgh Festivals, asked me put a blog post together about the politics of the Festivals after a Twitter exchange about Devoted & Disgruntled. You can read the result — an exploratory trip through capitalism, performance, rootedness and festival — at their blog here; some extracts are below:

Here’s the core idea in the Forest Fringe’s question: if the Festival should be politicised, then that politicisation requires not reform (a part played here by shows with political themes but without politicised means of production), but revolution, which is to say, by overturning, by radically changing the means of artistic production. That in this crucial political-artistic moment (“crucial” comes from “crux”, as in “cross”, as in “crossroads”), a political Festival would be a Festival which reimagines not just what theatre we make, but how we make it, which overturns not just what we’re talking about, but what our intentions are in speaking.”

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“Much of the Festival works on these principles: Some people own the means of production — access to venues, equipment, marketing sources, &c. Other people rent those means of production in order to produce a show — and of course the owners of the means of production charge more for that rent than the cost of running the means. And still others sell their labour to the owners. [...]The more capital you have, the more capital you can and must make. The bigger your venue empire, the more efficiently you can wring money out of the people using your venues and the bigger still your empire can become. Moreover, you start benefiting from economies of scale — the way buying lots of a thing makes the cost of the thing cheaper than buying only a little of a thing — so that you have easier access to better marketing, better equipment. That means more audiences come to your venues, and more of the renters — the people putting on shows — want to use your venues. The short story: the big venues at the Festival, the ones whose logos you see everywhere, are expanding every year.”

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“in many of the big venues, people are selling their labour for the lowest of low costs: “experience”, a bed, and free tickets. When there is a wage, it’ll be the minimum. This is so grossly like 19th century factory economics that it hurts: such a venue is a performance-factory where the bosses own the labourers’ houses and pay them in tokens only redeemable at the bosses’ own shops. I would not be surprised if in coming years the big venues started charging for their employees’ accommodation.”

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“Revolutionary political economy tries to think of other ways society could function than this untrammelled libertarian marketplace. I’m not going to get into the huge debates here, but I am going to sketch out some of the possibilities and how they relate to the Festival, using theatre as an example. There’s state socialism, where a government, democratically controlled or otherwise, runs all the theatres for the benefit of employees and audiences. There’s anarcho-syndicalism, where freely organising voluntary associations, strongly encouraged by social pressures, build and run free theatres and shows for the benefit of all, with or without a monetary system. There’s benevolent feudalism or philanthro-capitalism, where individual beneficient dictators own and run the theatres out of their own pockets and to their own principles. There’s liberal charity, where those with time and privilege to give organise theatre for those without. And there’s liberal democracy, where we all pretend that our rare rituals of voting have any influence whatsoever over the behaviour of the elected “representatives” who make pragmatic decisions about how theatre is run determined by whichever way the political and financial wind is blowing.”

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“What I mean is, you’re bringing a show to Edinburgh, not just to the Festival. There is a year-round arts scene here which you might want to find out about, engage with, and give something back to. There are people living here who might want to be involved in the Festival somehow, but you’re too busy marketing to tourists: you don’t think about how to find them, let alone make your show accessible and affordable to them, let along encourage them.”

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“Festival advertising is a barely regulated market, and the result is possibly the least effective method of matchmaking between audiences and shows. You have to be very savvy to find what you’re looking for, and you have to be very lucky to find something surprising. Most of us just follow big name reviewers, or directors/writers/venues/companies/performers we trust, or go to whatever’s free, or stick with plays and comedians we already know. Maybe we’ll risk one or two chancers, and then go home disappointed. This is terrible for art, for politics, and for life. We have to be able to do better.”

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“The Festival is an industrial powerhouse: performance is a factory, and a show is the product of a lengthy production chain. As such, it is already a deeply political artistic space. I am saying that we — performers, audiences, workers — need to take control of that political space. We need to start making conscious decisions about what we want that space to be, and start acting them out. Better still, let’s think about the best way of making those decisions together.”

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“Seize the means of artistic production!”

Fringe Reflections, pt. 1

Part Edinburgh reviews, part jumping-off points for thinking about theatre.

Kieran Hurley: Hitch @ Forest Fringe

A monologue and video performance about hitch-hiking to the 2009 G8 conference in L’Aquila, Italy. Direct, simple and moving – a performance about travel and about political action, dwelling lightly but significantly on the meaning of both, telling a good story and a few jokes. Sweet, and a little inspiring.

Fish and Game: Two Trillion @ Forest Fringe

An unusual play about biology, performance and Abraham Lincoln and death, as well as a lot of other things. Employs so many theatrical techniques and touches on so many themes that it sometimes seemed incoherent, but it was at least a fun an hyper-real journey through thoughts and experiences. I liked the frankness of the delivery especially, the feeling that the avant garde elements weren’t self-consciously or pretentiously outré: they were just presented for what they were.

Zambezi Express @ Assembly

An African drumming and dance show strung along a paper-thin plot about football. The music and movement is stunning – skilled, celebratory and exhausting. The story is a near-nonsensical retelling of the boy-wins-girl triumph-over-adversity plot, hopping effortlessly from cliché to cliché. It feels like a very Western myth, as well, which leads me to think hard and confusedly about the semiotics of the show: what does it all mean? What roots does this show have, and how much is it a construction for Western audiences? What does it mean to the participants, and where they’re from? Whenever I see something fusion or cross-cultural, I feel my ignorance strongly.

ArtsAdmin: Future Editions @ Forest Fringe

You roll a dice and get a library ticket; you enter the library and find your book – a human, with whom you have a conversation about the future. Mine was a Town Planner from Edinburgh; my conversation was enlightening and enjoyable. I liked this concept a great deal, but felt that its programming didn’t allow it to fulfil its potential: there was only really time for me to have one ten-minute slot. I wanted to browse this library! I felt under pressure, instead of enjoying being around fascinating tomes. Hopefully we’ll see it more, with more leisure.

Tim Crouch: The Author @ Traverse

This play’s been causing a lot of talk. The audience are sat in banks of seats facing each other, with no stage space, and the actors are spread among us. It’s a play that tells the story of a play about violence – The Author is about the portrayal of violence in our culture, why we make art and view art about violence, and what it means for us. Here’s what I wrote about it in response to this Guardian article.

1 ) Violence and Walkouts

I’m in the happy position of not understanding in the least why anyone would walk out of this play. (Not counting the initial staged walk-out.) There’s nothing particularly sensational or awful going on — to repeat a cant that’s only got a little tired, there’s no narrative of something happening off-stage that is any more unpleasant than in, say, Titus Andronicus. Despite the unexpected staging, the audience is genuinely made to feel comfortable, the actors work hard to keep on-side, even when perpetrating acts of violence on their ears and minds. This is really a very conventional play, about subject-matter we should be used to dealing with. Of course, if someone is uncomfortable they have every right to leave — but I wonder if some audience members don’t go to supposedly controversial plays with the intention of walking out. Still, it does make for good drama!

2) Violence and Interactivity

This is not an interactive play. It starts with the illusion of interactivity, but this simply serves to put the audience in the right frame of mind for thinking about the play, rather than to create a contract of interaction with the audience. There are no choices for the audience, no branching points, no option of guiding or refusing the narrative. (I tried, at one point, when “Tim” asked if we wanted him to stop, saying “Yes”. The audience whooped a little, the script carried on relentless.)

As such, the play constitutes an act of violence on its audience: like “Esther”‘s “Karen”, we are offered the illusion of choice, only to have it roughly taken away.This is a neat reflection, only a little too neat, which helps to bring out some of the salient themes — but I do wonder whether it wouldn’t have been more interesting to have a play that’s genuinely interactive. To have a genuine conversation about these ideas. To have a play that’s really happening, rather than purely representational. As it is, despite the beauty of the writing and the depth of the thought, the approach to choice can seem as trite as the closing of Ben Elton’s “Popcorn” . . .

3) And is it any good?

Well, yes. It’s a very good play, a beautiful and sensitive approach to its subject matter. But, at the same time, being a play about theatre most of all, and culture/media in general more widely, it has rather limited scope and appeal — that is to say, it’s a play written for theatre people. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it is limited. While the post-modern game-playing isn’t too overwhelming (thank goodness — that would be morally irresponsible for this subject), it is still a bit smug, a bit exclusionary. I wonder if the play “The Author” describes wouldn’t in fact be a wider and more interesting and more accessible exploration of the same subject matter. I’m reminded of the Presnyakob Brothers’ “Terrorism”, which deals with many of the same ideas — the meanings of violence, of choice, and of the infectiousness of representations of horror — but with more humour, wider scope, and greater relevance.

Finally: I’d find it a bit sad if this were indeed Edinburgh’s most talked-about play. That would show an extreme insularity of theatre-goers — one which I suspect exists, but which I wish didn’t. For us to be talking about a play which talks about talking about violence — oi, that’s a little too circular and self-referential for my tastes. Yes, this play is excellent, but I’d still rather be actually doing things instead.

Polar Bear: Return @ Forest Fringe

A “spoken word film” about Birmingham and coming home. Beautifully written and performed, with charm and grace. Only a little maudlin at times, only a touch slow and meandering. But full of moments of pure light.

I’m thinking about this directness and simplicity thing a great deal, as it’s a current not just at the Forest Fringe, but throughout contemporary fringe performance, especially in the penumbra of Live Art. Commonalities: an artful artlessness, a lack of guile and deception, the presentation of a performance for what it is, a thing in itself rather than a thing which is represented, a desire not to overreach, an imagination that plays very directly with the audience rather than to the audience. I can only explain the phenomenology of these shows by implication, but it is there. I wonder what it means. I like it, but I’m uncertain of it, and it does have to recognise the virtues of whimsy, utopia and entertainment, to avoid being too self-satisfied in its simplicity.

Still to come: Beautiful Burnout, The Tempest, The Man from Stratford, Penelope, Freefall, Camille O’Sullivan

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