Tag Archives: Tim Crouch

Sorry for the planes

Adler & Gibb – further thinking

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What are we all doing in a theatre? – Karl James

 

I get many emails from unfamiliar email addresses containing links that I am asked to download. I got several of those emails yesterday, and actually downloaded one of them – when I realised it was from one of the directors of Adler & Gibb. I got a personal podcast! Trust this lot to even use our daily communication method in innovative ways. In my personal podcast, Karl James, against a background of airplanes, thanks me for my piece about their piece and talks about why the film.

Now I’m not a proper critic or anything, but I think it’s a good thing for artists to answer reviews and start conversations, and I enjoy imagining Billington also receiving a personal podcast, perhaps with the sound of lobsters growling gently in the background.

So this prolongs my thinking about the piece, and particularly the film. It can’t change my experience of that part of the night, but it can change my mind now, or make me think more now, and the only theatre experiences I like are the ones that I don’t forget about when I leave. Getting stuck on something means I’ve still got some part of the play to work on, it stops the evening stopping at the end of the night. Perhaps theatre is better when there’s a part of it we choke on.

So I got that the film clearly wasn’t the film that Louise made, and I also didn’t forget that Adler & Gibb are not real and theatre is not real and therefore what I’m being shown is not the ‘real’ place but a version of an imagined one.

Nobody’s right, nobody’s wrong, so we wanted to put some images up and make a theatre into a cinema for a few minutes and to ask some more questions about what it is we do when we are sitting watching something together and whether anybody’s version is a valid one or whether anybody’s version is an invalid one. So it’s meant as a provocation I suppose. (Karl James – transcribed from podcast)

If theatre’s default position is authoritative then what Crouch, James and Smith do from the beginning is play with that position. But when the film comes on (it’s only a few minutes long by the way)… in spite of the fact I knew it was a version of an imagined place, the concrete gesture of it seemed to be trying to enforce the ‘reality’ of the imagined place, trying to say, look, you got it right, here it is…it felt like it was there to reward the audience for our hard work up until then, and I didn’t want that reward … it didn’t, at that stage anyway, make me think about versions or the value of rendering images, but it did demonstrate how much better theatre is at those things.

Perhaps I needed something else in the film, to allow me to think about it rather than reject it. Perhaps I needed a glimpse of a child operating a light or a camera in the background. Perhaps I needed to see the script of Adler & Gibb lying around. The film seemed so flat and final, but perhaps that’s part of the point…

Andrew Cowie responded to my piece about the piece and I like the way he saw the film, the journey from the exposing of the mechanics of theatre all the way to the supposed realism of film… funnily enough (or typically) Andrew Cowie justifies/explains the film with more certainty than Karl James – one of those examples of how, once the work is made, it belongs to the audience …. Cowie’s description does make me think differently about it. Makes me think differently but not (retrospectively) feel differently. I think Tim Crouch’s work is often a great collaboration between asking us to think and just letting us respond, in a more unquestioning, childlike way. I get delighted by the work, like a child, I want to be delighted all the way until the end and being interrupted makes me grumpy. What do we value from theatre? Thought provocation or emotional engagement or entertainment? I guess that was Brecht’s question.  … Or all three.

I took the first half of the show to be a critique of ‘realness’; how we’ve constructed an entire actor training industry to teach actors what they already knew as children, how we’ve got used to seeing realistic sets and props when in fact any real object can represent any fictional object when you place it in the theatrical frame, or when you play with it as a child, and how representation has supplanted its source to the extent that even the Margaret Gibb character starts to care about how she’ll look in the film. But having set up film as the enemy of imagination the film itself lingered over all those peripheral details the first half rejected as non-essential; the torn wallpaper, the leaking roof, the empty room and, with no actors, no action and no dialogue, we start to make stories out of it so maybe film doesn’t dull the imagination, it stimulates it differently.

So I saw the film as the continuation of the rest of the show; starting with actors facing the audience with no action or vocal inflection, then progressing through movement and expressive acting to realistic props and a representational stage set and then, via ‘live’ mediated video transmission, as per NTLive, to arrive at the logical conclusion: remove the actors altogether and just show the objects, followed by the last remaining, and utterly fake, live performance left to actors, the awards show. (Andrew Cowie, blog reply)

In my piece about the piece I wax lyrical about the images I could see in my imagination, and how I didn’t want them replacing. In his message to me Karl mentions responses to The Author, that audience members would say ‘how dare you put images in my head’ – even though there were no images on stage. With this I was saying ‘how dare you take images out of my head’, as Karl said, it proves the power of the theatre and of an audience to construct images.

The girl giving the lecture about Adler was trying to guess what her audience wanted and broke her script to ask, and couldn’t believe that getting the tattoo wasn’t enough, that her audience weren’t seeing the value of an unsigned napkin, and were just watching passively rather than applauding her for all her work.

 

Audiences are hard. What the hell do they want?

 

What are we all doing in a theatre?

 

Thinking breathing worrying
(it’s a large plastic lobster)
not watching the telly or checking email
building a sandcastle
watching a child lying in a grave
there’s a little boy just standing there
what’s he doing? He’s looking at us
and the deer disappears.

 

Actually I don’t think audiences are so hard. I agree with Karl & collaborators, that audiences like to work things out, and like to be surprised, and like work that doesn’t explain itself right from the beginning. The only problem at the moment is that a few (‘important’?) critics really don’t like that kind of work and when this kind of work is talked about in a particular way it can put off audiences and that makes theatres cautious about programming it. But it’s important that theatre gets to evolve just like every other artform, and audiences shouldn’t be underestimated.

There are viewers, listeners and readers who use whatever resources of interpretation and intertextual connection they can lay their hands on to create their own, new interpreations and connections. (Theo van Leeuwen, Speech, Music, Sound.)

It was delightful to receive Karl’s thoughts, and in his words, this is ‘a starting point for conversation rather than an end in itself.’

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Adler & Gibb

by Tim Crouch

directed by Tim Crouch, Karl James & Andy Smith

At the Royal Court until 5th July

Amelda Brown as Gibb

Amelda Brown as Gibb. Johan Persson

For me, form is a uniquely contemporary expression. Form talks about “now” – about how we are and how we communicate to each other. It can speak more forcefully than the stories it contains. It is theatre’s loss not to think more rigorously about form. Visual art has moved beyond all recognition in the last 100 years. Theatre is still mired in notions of realism. There’s a great quote from the American scenic designer Robert Edmond Jones: “Realism is something we practice when we aren’t feeling very well. When we don’t feel up to making the extra effort.” The form of realism is about an attempt to capture reality – and it is this acquisitive aspect of realism that I am interested in exploring. Tim Crouch, Aesthetica Magazine

What I love about Tim Crouch and his collaborators’ work is that it knows it’s in a theatre. That doesn’t mean that it’s knowing or pretentious or any other adjective that gets put onto intelligent theatre-makers, it means that it starts from the empty space. There are chairs out there, a stage up here (at the Royal Court at least) and people will be sitting there and people will be speaking up here and what’s the point of ignoring that when it’s so full of potential?

I don’t think that I can explain why I liked the fact that there were two children on stage and we never knew quite why. I think I enjoyed it because they were living on stage, the theatre space gained a layer of lived-in-ness because they were on it, drawing pictures and making a sandcastle/grave. The fact they occasionally made a mistake gave it an element of school play, or children putting on a performance for family, it reminded us that when people put on a play they are trying. They played with the theatre images, they interfered with the narrative layer by introducing a lobster, or an inflatable hammer. The children couldn’t help not acting, and neither could the little dog that came on before the interval. They interfered with the canvas of the performance and reminded us that this is artifice, in a way that allowed us to see in a different way. Perhaps a contemporary version of Brecht’s distancing. It made the viewer question meaning in the same way Magritte’s Interpretation of Dreams did, taking that human need to make sense and using it to go beyond surface sense and find new meanings. And anyway, it did make a lot of sense in the context of a story about conceptual artists. The subject of the play is fictional, but it’s the only really undisputed layer, and the story that is constructed about these artists and their work is absolutely believable.

Having read a few reviews that say the first half was hard and confusing, I’m trying to think back to my experience of it. I embraced the idea that the children weren’t going to be explained, and that kept me entertained. I got the layered form of schoolgirl (Rachel Redford) giving a lecture, and animated slides on stage, and both layers in relation to Janet Adler, and the fact that the two layers were happening at different times. I got that the woman, Louise (Denise Gough) was (acting) an actor and that Sam (Brian Ferguson) was her coach and I enjoyed the Meisneresque theatre exercises that ask for repetition of words – ‘blue blouse’ to the point at which the words become sounds. Crouch is more storyteller than Dadaist so even when something does lose meaning it turns out to be important and comes back later in a new context. I don’t remember ever being confused by the narrative. Crouch mixes styles of dialogue brilliantly, the character of Margaret Gibb (Amelda Brown) had a totally different rhythm to her speech, her feet planted into the floor while her monologue looped around in short tense sentences – great use of non-naturalistic dialogue to communicate the most believable and human narrative thread.

It’s true that this is not a play about Syria or Nigeria or the EU … but we have enough reactionary reportage plays in England, and they never tell me anything I couldn’t find out outside of a theatre. I hope that the value of art hasn’t fallen to such an extent that it is no longer acceptable to question it in a theatre. I hope it isn’t trivial to ask what we’re all doing there in a theatre and what do we make art for and what makes it art anyway? Even if those questions are too art college-like, there’s also the human story, about ‘holding someone till they fade away’. For a long time theatre has been dominated by reportage-response naturalism. It’d be brilliant if stages like the Royal Court kept the door open for different approaches too.

There were two final layers to the narrative. The first gave us a glimpse of what the film about Adler would be like, with Louise playing Adler and ‘Gibb’ playing Gibb, it’s a slither of cheesy Hollywood, that ends in a ‘real’ kiss. The use of TV screen plus theatre continues the play on levels of artifice. Perhaps this would have been a good ending, but then comes the only layer that I couldn’t buy into. I had Adler and Gibb’s house in my imagination, I had the clutter, I had the window frames and the door, I had the barbed wire fence and overgrown garden, I took the tree/neon drugs sign and used that in my imagination, I could see it all and I could even see a dead body. But then they go and show us this on a film. A huge screen shows all the elements that I’ve been imagining. The cinematography of the film is average, so there’s nothing in it that I hadn’t already constructed in my imagination, and my imagination is better because my imagination is like a memory, I can sense the place, like a dream, like a memory, fragmented and incomplete. So the only layer of this story that I thought didn’t work was the screen, because it erased the layer that I could sense in my imagination. The only other niggle I had was the use of sound at the end, noise crescendo than cut out. It’s been used too many times and artificially amps up the impact of an ending, it didn’t allow me as an audience member to have my own sense of what the ending did. I preferred it when Mario the dog came on at the end of the first half, ignored the command to sit, had a look at us looking at him and wagged his tail.

Adler & Gibb is entertaining, strange, provocative, and a masterclass in theatre. I bought my ticket months ago as I thought it’d sell out, but it hasn’t, so don’t miss it!

 

Tim Crouch writes a good interval…

adler-and-gbb-playtext

 

 

Denise Gough as Louise

Denise Gough as Louise as Adler…skull as Adler

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On the ‘minimal performance’

Interview with John Hall

Part III

HS: You were talking about the minimal … do you want a cup of tea?

The ‘minimal performance mode’ I’m interested in that, where performance is, in readings.

I think it was Chris Goode who was saying at the talk that he’s increasingly suspicious … I will quote him wrong … of learning texts … he felt he wanted the script in front of him, that it somehow felt more authentic … and I’ve heard poets say that, about readings, I’ve heard poets say they don’t learn their poems because it would somehow not be authentic.

[Chris Thorpe talking to Diana Damian:

…The deliberate choice of reading rather than memorizing points towards the immediacy of the act. ‘It takes the focus away from the memory trick of knowing and learning. I want to take away the kind of tight rope walk that can distract when you’re watching someone speak a lot of text… it’s not about watching someone perform a skill, but engaging with storytelling as a form of conversation…’ ]

JH: I’ve heard the opposite too, if you can’t learn them they’re not authentic … Chris Goode, Andy Smith, Lone Twin … there’s a distinction between the bits they call ‘Lone Twin Theatre’, which are pieces that the actors, or performers, learn. When Lone Twin perform themselves, they make a point of a clipboard.  Which I find interesting, because it feels to me it immediately signals that there is a text that is absolutely present, and that you or I could pick it up and read it.

Lone Twin 'SledgeHammer Songs'

Lone Twin ‘SledgeHammer Songs’

There was one night during Chris’ residency, where Chris and Theron were going to perform, to read, perform, some texts by Andy Smith. They tossed a coin to see who should read what – which exaggerated the sense of the provisionality of the actual performance in the moment. But there was this text, like with the kind of poetry I was brought up on – there is the primacy of the text.

There is a kind of minimal performance mode, which in a way says – you’re lazy, you should be reading this in the quiet of your room. However, I’m reading here, and I shall do my best to approximate to how you might read it – which of course doesn’t work … you’ve got an audience, no two of whom would read it in the same way.

There’s an interesting thing that happens with poets, who are in many senses reading extremely well, poets such as Ed Dorn, interesting page poets, but what happens is that once you’ve heard one of their very effective readings, you’re locked into it. It’s a sonic spectre, there every time you read the text. It’s one of the reasons why Jeremy Prynne refuses to do readings … why should the poet’s reading of the work be privileged…?

HS: So in a way, by having the text there, the reader or writer is signalling that this is not how it should be. Poets who learn their work are saying – this is the version of the text, this is how I want it to sound … but a poet that mumbles from a page is saying – I don’t want to be here, this is not how this work should be communicated, please look at it, please buy the book.

JH: Yes and if you belong to the privileged audience, you’ll be able to ‘get’ the poem anyway … I would distrust myself if I was in anyway theatricalising the text. If I were bringing the elements of theatre to it. Poems are not theatre, on the whole, although it’s quite possible to read poems that are mini theatrical sketches.

HS: But then we have to go into what is theatre, the differences between poetry and theatre … because aren’t theatrical elements … probably we mean something different by those words because for me, that ‘theatricality’ is part of the writing, part of the poem.

JH: You’re right, I’m not going to disagree, I’m just making the distinction between work that uses the conventions of theatre, theatre, even Chris Goode’s work, even Lone Twin, call on some of the Aristotelian oldies. Certainly in the case of The Disappearance of Sadie Jones, there are characters, personae, in a very particular life situation or set of life situations.

HS: Yes, but that is not what defines these pieces as theatre, because you can also have pieces like Crimp’s Attempts on her life, Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis, that have no character specification, no location, none of the things you mentioned –but we still see them as theatre.

JH: I don’t know those pieces so it would be good if you could say more…

HS: Attempts on her life is 17 scenarios for the theatre, each scene is very short, there are no characters, just dashes for different lines, you can perform it with any number of performers, sex, age …The only thing that is similar in the different scenarios is that they are always talking about ‘her’… Attempts on her life. So one scene is very much like a cut-up poem in that it’s using text from car advertising, she drive at this speed, she’s shiny … they talk about her as if she’s a car. Another is called ‘All messages deleted’ – there are messages from different people on her answer machine. But the messages don’t align with each other.  Every time something is established it’s then destabilised so you can’t get to the end of the piece and say ‘she is a young woman, she is like this, etc’ because she is constantly being rewritten. You can perform the scenes in any order…

But I’ve always thought, and this can also be applied to poetry, that although lines are not assigned and characters aren’t specified, as soon as you put something on stage you are making characters. As soon as you say to a female actor, read this as if you’re a news presenter, you are assigning all those things to the text that the writer left out. The same perhaps could be said in poetry, as soon as you have a person standing on stage in a particular time and place, we are giving it the properties that make theatre.

JH: One of the answers might be, with the two authors you’ve mentioned, is that they have identified themselves up until those pieces as presences in the world of theatre; these aren’t trivial categories – you place yourself.

HS: It’s not trivial but it can be accidental. It can depend on where you studied, who took up your first work  … Tim Crouch for instance, he’s identified as a playwright, working within the theatre world, but I’ve heard students and other writers say that his pieces ‘aren’t really plays’ that they are ‘performance art’. The problem is that they say this in a dismissive way, as if this means that ‘playwrights’ don’t need to consider his work.

JH: I would be really interested in what can happen when something that is, by whatever set of accidents or choices, usually billed as theatre, gets billed as poetry or the other way round. This must happen to you: you are given a choice or not a choice.

HS: I’m not given a choice!

JH: So you know what I mean. So much of what has constituted late modernism has been people within a certain genre, fighting it. Fighting it from within it.

HS: Yes, and if they were not in it, would their work lose its urgency and its interest because they wouldn’t have anything to fight against? It’s the borders that make their work …

JH: Probably, we’d need to look at real instances. These are crude –  let’s call them economical and sociological ­– signals about what kind of thing this piece of cultural activity is, which bit of a library it will appear in if published, or shown. Yes, that is absolutely part of the tension it seems to me. I’d be very surprised if you or I don’t expect the stuff that interests us to be extremely knowing about its generic provenance, to be absolutely knowing within it. I don’t mean like ‘I’m a poet I’m going to write sonnets, let’s get on with it’  – not that kind of knowingness, but the knowingness that says, ‘how come we’re still hooked on sonnets, what are they?’

HS: Yes, work that acknowledges its frame, that says ‘you are walking into this theatre with a particular set of expectations’. A lot of the work I’m interested in does that, the playwright Will Eno for instance, he acknowledges the form and he finds drama in the fact that there is an audience sitting there, it’s half seven in the evening, and these are actors. It’s strange to me that ‘drama’ assumes there’s a need to forget the reality of audience, stage and actors.

JH: One of the things that interests me about poetry in its live reading mode, is that it’s an incredibly insecure public genre. On the whole, people don’t know how to behave … The poets performing are muddled at best, but in spite of all the years, audiences don’t know how to behave either. If you watch a classical music audience, they know exactly how to behave, and that’s part of the pleasure.

HS: Yes, and perhaps that’s why spoken word is so popular, because audiences know how to behave and performers know how to perform, they’re not scared of microphones, they know the rules of the game.

JH: I knew Andy Smith as an MA student in Dartington, we kept a bit in touch, very often there is this troublesome ‘I’ – one of the distinctions between lyric poetry and theatre. Lyric poetry is supposed to be unembarrassed about the ‘I’ while theatre is aware it’s a problem. So in Chris’ residency I was seeing the ‘I’ of my friend  Andy Smith being taking on at a toss of a coin by Chris or Theron. There’s a Lone Twin example, ‘Daniel hit by a train’ – on the night that I saw it the performer was Cynthia Whelan, certainly a middle aged, woman, her lines are ‘ I am Gregory, I am eighteen’… she was playing a male eighteen year old. If it hasn’t already happened, you realise at that point that this is not someone filling out a character but someone performing a liturgy…

Tim Crouch and Andy Smith. By Katherine Leedale

Tim Crouch and Andy Smith. By Katherine Leedale

HS: Although you don’t lose character, you have more characters. Because then you have the character of the woman, the performer, and you have the character of Gregory, who we will see as a character.

JH: It’ s not Gregory, I’ll have to remember the name.

HS: Shall we call him Gregory … it depends how the piece works, but we are used to storytellers taking on other roles, other voices, other characters, and it doesn’t stop them from being characters, it’s just more revealed, more explicit, the performer and the persona.

JH: It’s borrowing some of the joys of playground simulation … you be Gregory… and I’ll be … I imagine that’s pretty universal in children’s games.

HS: Tim Crouch works with objects in interesting ways … they become characters … Can we go back to this thing of theatre, the way you used the word theatre?

JH: I’m already beginning to regret that.

HS: It’s just something that I have to wrestle with in my work so it’s useful to talk it through. I wonder about what happens when we use labels that are not in our own disciplines, so for you, ‘performance writing’ will always be used correctly as that’s your area, that’s a label that you own, if you choose to use it, you very much own it as it was coined at Dartington, so it can safely be used to discuss your work. However, you don’t work in theatre, therefore I wonder if when you use the word ‘theatre’, you’re using it from an outsider perspective … when we use labels that are outside of our own work, we tend to think of the worst aspect of those labels. So when people use the word ‘performance poet’ they will think, like a bad stand up comedian, not very literary, cheap rhymes. And when you say theatre maybe you’re thinking ‘over acted’, ‘dramatic’ – aspects that are indicative of bad theatre, the clichés. When you use the word theatre in a negative sense, as in ‘poetry is not theatre’ – I wonder if you’re thinking about those negative elements of theatre.

JH: All I can say is a fair cop, I probably introduced it as a word, ‘to theatricalise’, I was probably thinking of it as one of those things people within theatre would also want to avoid.

HS: Yes, ‘theatrical’ is often seen as a negative thing.

JH: I talked about this with Chris [Goode]; if I remember rightly, the word ‘theatre’ is important to Chris, and it’s important at times for his stuff to be thought of uncomplicatedly as theatre, and so I suppose what I wouldn’t back away from is a number of things … one is that I don’t think any of these terms have become redundant, no one’s done away with them however much they tried to, so there is a mistaken essentialism that says there has always been something called ‘theatre’, something called ‘poetry’ and we can distinguish what they are. That’s mistaken partly because historically, if you take the two forms, loosely, poetry is never going to be the same again once literacy is established: where poetry is written, it is going to go through a radical transformation, through technology, a profound change …

[…detour about liveness]

HS: I suppose what I was saying with the poetry thing is, is it not still poetry to write a piece in which the way in which space is used, even if it’s simply, is within the text itself … so the poetry doesn’t happen until the performance. Is that not still poetry?

JH: First answer is, does it matter? But that’s undercutting what I said … One of the things about the tradition of poetry I find myself in is that it doesn’t have stage directions. I’m not saying that’s the thing that defines it … it doesn’t say read this bit quietly, walk on … think how few directions there are in Shakespeare, there are those divisions into scenes.

HS: Whereas Beckett’s stage directions are very specific. They are part of the writing.

JH: Defining it.

HS: Yes, he has pieces that are only stage directions.

JH: I suspect with a bit more time and thought we could put our minds onto things that are manifestly poems that have invoked the conventions of theatre by building stage directions into the poem.

HS: Possibly. Or do they even need to be written? Poems written for performance may not have stage directions written in because it’s not about the script. Because no one else needs to pick up that script and perform it. For instance with my work, some of it I can’t write down but I know there’s a specific way of performing it. It’s not about the written text, it’s not written down.

JH: If we’re thinking about a reading … one of the things coming up is that there is no more one theatre than there is one poetry. There are those poets who write for the page and who refuse to read. Not just because they’re terrified, but for very good reasons. They are saying that they don’t want to get in the way of the multiple performance of reading silently that happens when any one ideal reader encounters the text. One of the things that is counter to performance is the poetry that is founded in ambiguity, for instance in there being three ways to negotiate a line.

HS: Yes, as soon as you perform it you’ve made a choice.

JH: You have to, that’s one of the definitions of performance. Whereas the visual representation of the poetry on the page doesn’t. And there are very interesting ways of reading silently I think, that keep it all in play, to hear three versions almost at once.

HS: So when you are in ‘minimal performance mode’ what is that?

JH: Well, the primacy for me – and a huge responsibility – is that the bloody thing that got written before is there, and it’s non-negotiable as a text.

HS: Why is it non-negotiable?

JH: Just as the Beckett estate says a Beckett text is non-negotiable … even after his death.

HS: So you see your texts in the same way?

JH: Partly I do, and that’s partly because I have never worked in a mode that has drawn on improvisation. Very often what writers mean by improvisation is not what performers mean at all. There’ll be modes of playing around, generating text, but I’ve had more than one uncomfortable dream about the need to improvise on the spot. The classic. A massive audience, not one like I’ve ever experienced … With the kind of stuff I’ve written, you can fill in the gaps.

HS: But very few writers improvise like that, only some MCs. – I’ve done some performances that I would say are improvised but I am never inventing the poem on the spot in that way, I don’t know how connected that is with the fixedness of what you have on the page. If I improvise in performance, I’ve always had a lot of language to work with, I’m making choices about what I’m working with, what I choose and what I repeat and the rhythm and dynamics and all of those properties of the text.

JH: I’m sure that would be recognised by jazz musicians – a head score, you are working to something.

HS: I have those dreams as well – usually I have to be on stage and I vaguely know the play but don’t know the lines. But that’s not a reason to then look at your poems and say, this is fixed … I suppose the question is, how are you true to what you’ve written? Performance is a different form.

JH: I’ll put it in a completely different way, without wanting to negate what I’ve said … which is that at the time of the minimal performance it doesn’t matter who wrote the text.

HS: Really? So how are you reading it? Are you reading it as if you are discovering it for the first time? As if you were writing it on the spot?

JH: No, because if I’d been asked to read someone’s else’s work I would always rehearse…

HS: So you rehearse … but then you read it as if it’s written by someone else?

JH: Well, as though it doesn’t matter who wrote it, it’s not quite the same.

HS: And what does that mean?

JH: The earliest poems of mine, poems that I might be tempted to read now, were written in or just before 1966 when I was 21. I’m 68 now. To what extent is that 21 year old, me? I’m sure all people with a body of work would identify with this…

HS: You get distanced

JH: Yes, and sometimes you want to disown it…

HS: True. You don’t normally read those ones in public.

JH: No, but I mean I then get caught up in the fact that those ones I feel uneasy about, people connect with.

HS: Do you have that same feeling of distance from work that you’ve written very recently? If you wrote something today, performed it tomorrow?

JH: Yes, I think so. But that probably has quite a bit to do with a way of writing, and I’m going to avoid the word theatrical … but the poems that are not something that have an emotional or affective shape … outside the language, that the language is trying to reproduce … it’s not ‘this poem is about a terrible experience’ …

HS: Is it going back to the ‘I’? That if there is no ‘I’ in your poem then you will not feel that Identity, personal ownership…

JH: Or that even if there is an ‘I’– at the moment of reading it, who is that? Anybody can write ‘I’; there’s no law against that. So as soon as you start to organise as a writer, to organise material in a way that is not just a surrogate … you were talking about writers of fiction wanting writing to be transparent … but with a poem, what would the transparency be? With some poems it’s clear, poems that are about subjects such as a baby being born, for instance, those are things that are outside the poem. For many people a poet’s job is to be clear to this thing that is outside the poem. To convey it to an audience or readership. If you don’t write that kind of poem, then, the ‘I’ is an irrelevance, who is it? There’s a way of reading that is not claiming an identity between the one who performs and the ‘I’ who is a character…

HS: Is there? Because that seems a very hard thing to avoid … if you are using ‘I’ in the poem and you are performing the work, it’s very hard to stop the listener from identifying those two ‘I’s with each other. Which can be frustrating, or it can be a fun thing to play with…

JH: It’s why so many poems of the last few decades have explicitly made that their matter. As a way of seeing people off, or hoping to.

HS: Even if it’s not about the ‘I’, the personal experience. Isn’t there still some connection, with you … I’m thinking about this thing of distance … I guess it’s about communication … if you’re trying to communicate something in the reading, then you can’t be distanced from the text. Is that true? Maybe it’s not.

JH: You’ve thrown in a far worse word than ‘theatre’

HS: Did I say ‘emotion’? Oh –‘communicate’

JH: And then you added that vague term ‘something’

HS: Should I give an example? I’ve a piece called ‘prosthetics’ – it’s got nothing to do with me, I took a line from a documentary made in the US: ‘forty percent of those with prosthetic limbs will go back into war’ and a few other sentences ‘it’s a positive thing’, ‘Amputation is the next step in rehabilitation’. So I just took that first line and made it into vowel sounds and layered it, applied various procedures to it. But when I perform that poem, I am communicating … something … of war … something of prosthetic limbs…of amputation … of a child looking at her father and describing him as a monster … I’m not distanced from that material in the performance of it, and the performance of it, makes meaning…

JH: You see, I think in that case, I don’t think you or I can claim … communication requires more than one party.

HS: It does, I agree, but you still have communication in performance even when the audience is not responding verbally, there is still a two-way exchange.

JH: But what you stress, we’ll struggle with language now … communication is a process, and there is a theme, a topic, and the topic is outside, it preceded the performance piece, and is being referenced by you. It is probably the source of strong affect for you, which will very likely transfer to an audience … but I wouldn’t go further … I’m trying to distinguish between this notion that this performance is … the blunt way of putting it is that this is quite explicitly about something, you could have a note in the program, the note itself is going to predispose people to hearing it in relation to its subject.

HS: But if you didn’t have that note…

JH: It could communicate affect without the particular meaning coming across

HS: Which would be fine also, that’s the point I suppose, that it would have some emotional impact on the audience.

JH: Let’s make a distinction, your example wasn’t given as if it was about you. I’m just picking up on the idea that you didn’t choose the subject randomly but because it mattered, so there is the autobiographical insight offered…

HS: Yes, you can still say, why did I choose that topic and why did I choose those sentences. But surely you could say the same about your work. There is still an author there making choices.

JH: And those choices continue  being made in the performance.

'o now' by John Hall, in Shearsman Gallery

‘o now’ by John Hall, in Shearsman Gallery

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Filed under Interview, Poetry, Theatre

Transcribing the imaginary performance

Kind of a provocation (or perhaps rant)

Since the sixties, the playwright Tom Stoppard has been stating the fact that:

A text is an event, not a text. A script is the transcription of an event that has not yet taken place.

and that the playwright’s job is to transcribe ‘the imaginary performance’.

When a script reader at a theatre reads your play, they are not trying to decide whether or not to put your play on…. they are trying to decide whether or not to put an imaginary play on…and the play that they are imagining may not be the same play that you imagined.

The trouble (or sometimes the delight) with writing the play at home then getting it produced is that there is always going to be a gap between script and performance. A play written in the ‘traditional’ way will never quite be performed as the writer imagined it – the definitive version is always the one on the page. That is one of the main differences between a text devised with performers, and a text written by a single author at home. A devised text can only exist in performance with those particular performers (or in that particular location with site specific work).

I guess script readers are pretty adept at imagining this imaginary play you have written. But I wonder, if the gap between what you write and what might happen on stage is intentionally left open, the reader might get lost in that gap, and reject the play because they just can’t imagine it.

Usually writers try to narrow the gap I’m talking about – through stage directions, well developed characters with motivations and reasons for talking…and any other method writers have of being clear on the page.  This clarity makes the text enjoyable to read. The reader doesn’t have to work too hard, because the writer has been clear, and is writing within a recognisable style and form. When the director and actors are brought in to work on this play, they too aim to keep the gap between writer’s intentions and production as narrow as possible – by understanding and executing the intentions of the play and the writer as best they can.

I’m interested in the plays that intentionally leave a wide gap between page and production. Plays that leave gaps to be filled by collaboration. Such writers do not necessarily believe that their words should always take centre stage. In the gap, there is room for music, dance, physicality, stage design, light, video…..these writers might see those elements of theatre as equally important.  They might need the director to interpret it in their own way – the writers themselves may not have all the answers. These plays are not particularly easy or enjoyable to read – because the play is only one ingredient, it’s impossible to imagine them, to ‘see’ them.  (It’s pretty hard to imagine something unlike anything else you’ve seen.)

Writers who often leave space for collaboration: Heiner Müller, Sarah Ruhl, Mac Wellman, Sarah Kane, Caryl Churchill, Ronald Schimmelpfennig, Marius von Mayenburg… (I can’t find many in the UK – Tim Crouch & Howard Barker maybe, but they have particular approaches, maybe because they’ve had to find ways to manage the British system) In my opinion, plays by these writers don’t work when the text is left ‘to speak for itself’ and the production ‘stripped back’. I don’t think the text is supposed to speak for itself…the text benefits from collaborators who have visions on how to bring their discipline to the work.

Does a writer have a role in stage design, light design…? How does the writer use language to provoke collaborators? For instance, it’s a pity to ignore a stage direction such as:

The university of the dead. Whispering and muttering. From their gravestones (lecterns) the dead philosophers throw their books at Hamlet. Gallery (ballet) of the dead women. The woman dangling from the rope. The woman with her arteries cut open, etc…Hamlet view them with the attitude of a visitor in a museum (theatre). The dead women tear his clothes off his body. Out of an upended coffin, labelled HAMLET 1, step Claudius and Ophelia, the latter dressed and made up like a whore. Striptease by Ophelia….

(Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine)

I think a lot of productions either project this text onto a wall, or ignore it. To me (just like Sarah Kane’s rats who carry Carl’s feet) it seems to be a provocation – Hey designer, director, actors… here’s something to start you off. If stage directions are easy to execute, where’s the collaboration? It’s in attempting the impossible that something new is created.

Plays by these writers benefit from a looser, longer rehearsal process… maybe they require different acting styles/techniques, maybe they need a different working process…. when these plays are treated the same way a ‘traditional’ play is treated – they often don’t work. And then they give this kind of writing a bad name (pretentious/boring/academic/obscure).

The rules and structures in place in new writing theatres enable the theatres to get work onto a stage within time and financial restrictions. But is there a risk that writers write within these set parameters, to these processes – as otherwise the work won’t be staged…?

I was recently on the fantastic Aldeburgh/Jerwood Opera Writing scheme, and I think one of the points of the scheme is to bring people from different fields, who haven’t worked in opera before, together, in order to explore new methods of making opera, to collaborate, to experiment with alternative approaches. But when it came to the final week and we had the pressure of staging the work in front of the audience all the rules came back in. First the writers were told to keep quiet, then the composers too. Which of course makes sense – too many voices produces chaos etc….however the process became about staging the work within fixed parameters, instead of questioning and exploring the process itself and challenging those traditional roles.

There was one group that did it differently. The director/writer (Peter Cant) invited the composer (Marcin Stańczyk) to compose light, to contribute to the directing….and yes the final result was a bit chaotic, maybe didn’t do quite what they hoped/imagined –  but that’s irrelevant really. It’s impossible to make something like that work in such limited time. Even though we had the pressure of a showing with an audience– this was a rare opportunity to experiment and fail, and most of us, when it came to it, didn’t dare fail. (The pieces were great though and took risks in other ways 🙂 )

Maybe the writer doesn’t want a read through followed by a staged reading etc, maybe the writer wants to improvise with the actors, to work with a designer from the beginning….Maybe it’d be great if there was room for a writer within devised theatre companies, in non ‘new writing’ environments. (There probably is, e.g Abi Morgan-Frantic Assembly; Lucy Prebble-Headlong; Caryl Churchill-Out of Joint – I don’t know how those processes worked; the one that’s very clear is Tim Etchells-Forced Entertainment) But it would be great if these opportunities were easier to access for writers – it’d be great if you didn’t need to be successful via the other route first.

To me, from where I am (Plymouth) there seems to be a hurdle that’s tricky to clear. There is a pathway that most of the writers being produced have taken. It basically goes: Royal Court young writers’ programme/Soho young writers’ programme/any other London based writers’ programme run by a new writing theatre- development-development – getting work commissioned. Theatres don’t usually take risks on people they don’t know…. they would rather take a risk on someone they have already invested in and ‘developed’. That’s one hurdle to do with living a long way from London.

The other one is the gap issue I was talking about, the problem that faces a particular type of play.  I think, anyway, that theatres, through their selection of particular plays, are censoring playwrights and preventing development of ideas and approaches to writing. Looking at the tutorials on the website for the Bruntwood Prize demonstrates the preoccupations with a particular approach to character and narrative. (even though the reading process seems to leave room for the plays that fit in the ‘or anything’) category.  I think (and what do I know), anyway, I think that far more flawed ‘traditional’ plays are put on than flawed ‘experimental’ plays. (Of course the words ‘traditional’ and ‘experimental’ are inaccurate and vague but hopefully you know what I mean) – More flawed plays in the ballpark of Bartlett’s ‘Love love Love’  are put on than those in the ballpark of Churchill’s ‘Far Away’.  And, if, like me, you’re writing in the  ‘experimental’ ? ‘poetic’ ? ‘non-naturalistic’ ? ‘language based’ ? field – you need to see lots of these flawed productions/plays. Otherwise how can we get better at writing/producing them ourselves? I just don’t learn anything from watching plays like Love Love Love – because it’s simply nothing like what I want to do.

I was really interested to see Melanie Wilson’s Autobiographer recently. I don’t think (and really, I don’t know) that a new writing theatre would have commissioned/produced it. Because it doesn’t really do character/narrative/high stakes….and there’s no plot (there’s not supposed to be). It’s hard to follow what the characters are saying a lot of the time (it’s supposed to be). It had beautiful moments, some really delicate, touching audience interaction. Some audience members loved it, some struggled with it. I absolutely enjoyed it and more importantly, learned something about this approach to  playwriting by watching it.  I needed to see what happens when a writer (as a playwright/theatre maker) bathes in poetry entirely and doesn’t worry about narrative and plot, and to experience that as an audience member. As the writer, it’s hard to put yourself in the audience’s/reader’s shoes.. (btw check out her website and past work –  stunning)

Without seeing my plays succeed or fail in performance, I’m really struggling to re-write them and write the next ones. My characters perhaps don’t have enough depth on the page, but I think I’ve left space between my words for the actors to bring them alive. (not that a script should even have to have characters of course – but I’m not sure there’s any point to sending a script like that off ) Maybe my scripts aren’t ready, I’m sure they’re not, but I think the next stage of writing happens in collaboration…(and that’s the bit I’m good at)

– quick detour: perhaps another obstacle is that some theatres/directors/script readers/whoever don’t trust what I just said… that the writer really does know about theatricality, about performing, collaboration and all the other elements of performance. There seems to be a general view that writers only know about writing. That they can’t know whether their plays are ‘stageable’ or not, I suppose that’s why writers like me end up having to perform/produce/direct their own work, to prove that it’s possible, and to prove that we know what we’re doing…

I’m very excited to have been invited by David Lane to be on the panel of a discussion at the next South West New Writing Network meeting:

‘The Writer is Dead: Long Live the Theatre-Maker’

 As new theatre writing continues to diversify, embracing spoken word, inter-disciplinary work, collaboration, immersive or site-specific theatre or solo writer-performers, should the playwright with the script in their hand wait in the wings, or move with the times?

David said I’d be perfect for the panel as I tick several of those boxes.  (David is wonderful, thank you for inviting me :)) but, this made me think…actually…the only box I want to tick is ‘writer’. Everything I have done, I do to get my writing out there. I don’t want to be stuck up a mast reciting poetry on a boat in Plymouth, I don’t want to be performing on my own every day at the Edinburgh Fringe, (especially not with these bloody knees) I don’t particularly want to travel for 2 days to perform ten minutes of spoken word (but please keep inviting me!)…. really….I want my plays to be staged, whether that’s through the conventional route, with all its pitfalls, or an alternative, collaborative (i.e I raise the money) route – equally challenging.

Is the writer dead? – If our plays aren’t getting staged…we may as well be.

I don’t think it’s spoken word/devised theatre/multidisciplinary performance/site specific or any of those forms that is killing the writer…I think it’s the theatres that reject our work, and that try to hold onto the differences between new writing and everything else. (To a particular way of developing writers and producing work)  – That’s probably not fair…and every theatre is different of course…and sure this kind of writing is not for everyone…

I’m not sure how to remain alive, I’m not sure where to go next with my playwrighting…. maybe next I need to make friends with theatre companies, directors, composers, designers, performers and other artists and writers…and find another way to get the work made.

p.s:  Dear directors, theatre companies, composers, designers, performers, artists, writers…please get in touch – I will travel to London!

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Filed under Playwriting, Theatre