Magnetic North Blog
I’ve just spent a few days at Informal European Theatre Meeting (IETM) in Glasgow and it was a good opportunity to see work and chat with other theatre people from Europe and further afield.
From the work on show (which was all from Scotland) it was clear that so-called “immersive” theatre has become a big part of theatre making. Immersive theatre, like many names coined for particular performance styles, is a rather misleading title – like “physical theatre”, which seems to imply that nobody moves around in other plays – isn’t all good theatre immersive in the sense that it draws you right into its world? Anyway, whether you like the name or not, immersive theatre has become very big news in the last few years as companies like Grid Iron in Scotland and Punch Drunk in England have created work in non-theatre spaces that brings the audience into very close proximity with the performance, often blurring the lines between the two. “But haven’t people been doing that for years? Isn’t that audience interaction and site-specific theatre with a new name?” you may say, and you’d be pretty much correct. There is, of course, rarely anything genuinely new – someone, somewhere has always done it before and there is a very interesting new book about this which I shall write about at a later date.
The point is, though, that recent immersive theatre has tended to take this to more extreme ends than perhaps people had done previously (though read Charlotte Higgins’s article here about how quickly the shock of the new can fade). I went to several performances at IETM and only one of them took place in a theatre, and even that wasn’t originally built as a theatre but as a railway arch under Central Station.
Because immersive theatre has become rather voguish it means there is a variation in the skill with which it is executed (again, see Charlotte Higgins), but I saw (or rather took part in) a beautiful, moving and thought-provoking performance in a flat in Sauchiehall Street that exemplified the best of immersive theatre. The small audience (about 12 or 14) knocked on the door and were ushered into a living room in which enough sofas and armchairs had been crammed around the walls to seat us all. Our host, Adrienne, welcomed us warmly, asked our names and sat us down, offering teas and coffees. Adrienne is the alter-ego of Adrian Howells, a pioneer of “confessional theatre” and she chatted to us about what was going to happen over the next two hours (and I have never felt two hours pass so quickly). The structure of “An Audience with Adrienne” is deceptively simple and cleverly hides a good deal of thought about how the performance works – the audience is given a laminated café menu with the name of dishes substituted by alluring story titles like “Charles Bronson’s Weeping Wounds” and “Sad Songs”. All of the stories are episodes from Adrian’s life, and he invites the audience to share their own stories as well, though with no pressure to do so. At three points, Adrienne plays short films of interviews with Adrian’s parents and friends while she changes into new clothes. In the middle we all do some creative group work when we decorate paper plates in small groups.
Apart from the subtle skill with which the evening is constructed (subtle in the sense that the audience is not really aware of the structure), there is a wonderful sense of community created within the audience and a number of surprising and touching moments. After telling the Sad Songs story, Adrienne asks permission to sing a song for us, and with a can of hairspray as a microphone sings Seasons in the Sun. Now, this is one of the worst, most sentimental songs I can remember from my childhood, with its tawdry story and sing-along chorus, and it has never previously made me feel anything but the boke. Here, though, it suddenly became quite moving – not that the song was any better, but delivered with genuine feeling and a sense that this song was important, it created a moment of connection between everyone in the room.
So, is immersive theatre the thing that’s going to revitalise theatre? Not as whole, because like any form, there are good and bad examples of it around. What will keep theatre alive is a sense of adventure among theatre-makers and audiences and an understanding that finding the right medium for the story is the essential – Adrian Howells understand this, and the intimate setting he chose for An Audience was perfect, but there are other examples where a play has been shoehorned into an immersive setting because it is the current big thing rather than a necessity for the show. Plays in theatres and plays in unusual locations will continue alongside each other because theatre succeeds or fails by the quality of the performances and the ideas contained within rather than where it takes place.
I went to see Tim Crouch’s The Author today at the Traverse. I had already read the play so was aware of what the play was about (and I shall do my best not to give anything away for anyone who hasn’t seen it), but I was still surprised at the sheer discomfort of watching it. To say that the performance unsettles the audience is an understatement – one person left after 5 minutes and there was a steady flow throughout, with a mass emigration in the last five minutes (including one man who left singing “Some day my prince will come”) – but this is clearly a calculated risk and something that is, paradoxically, important to the production. I talked briefly with Tim afterwards and he said that this was the largest number of walk-outs they’d had, but that there were always some and that during one performance in London he was threatened with physical violence.
So what is it that has this effect? I was certainly discomfited by the performance, but I knew I was in a theatre watching a show and I knew that the character Tim Crouch was playing – who is also called Tim Crouch – was not the same as the ‘real’ Tim Crouch. To some extent, I think it is the identification of the audience as a character and the complicity that this carries. Some people want to sit in the dark and have the actors behave as if they’re not being watched. This is, of course, a relatively recent phenomenon dating back no further than the 19th century when Richard Wagner decided to turn the houselights out at Bayreuth. Before this the audience were very much part of the show (literally in some cases as seats would sometimes be on the stage itself). Tim Crouch takes this a stage further and actively seeks out the audience’s approval throughout the performance - “Is this OK?”, “Shall I carry on?” he and the other actors ask of us regularly. As I mentioned before, he blurs the lines further by playing a character called Tim Crouch, an award-winning playwright with a play on at the Royal Court (where this production originated), all the actors play characters with the same names and the character Tim’s fictional wife has the same name as the real Tim’s. So far so Paul Auster, but Crouch not only makes his character morally dubious, he also avoids the common actor’s trick of trying to make his character likeable. His character makes no attempt to defend what he has done, he presents it to us in order that we might form our own opinion. In doing this, he makes the audience in some way complicit and I think this is an incredibly brave thing to do. In many ways, the performance needs at least some people to walk out because this acknowledges the way it empowers the audience. Yet this act of empowerment is easily mistaken – one critic from a smart Sunday paper gloriously misunderstood the central motif of Tim’s earlier play An Oak Tree as narcissism rather than recognising that it was the very opposite. (In An Oak Tree the second actor is played by someone new every night, they knew nothing about the play in advance and only met Tim shortly before the performance starts – during the performance they are given lines to read, or fed them through an ear piece. The critic in question mistook this for narcissistic control rather than recognising the surrender to chance.)
But this is what happens when people operate on the borders, they leave themselves open to misinterpretation, but thank goodness for Tim Crouch – we need people like him to ask questions and make us feel uncomfortable. Did I enjoy The Author? I don’t think I could say that, but would I recommend it to others? Absolutely.
I used to have a tape of songs from Hollywood movies that I would listen to in the car and at one point I developed a theory that the difference between good and bad art could be summed up by the difference between Al Jolson singing Mammy and Gene Kelly singing Singing in the Rain (I was doing a lot of driving at the time). Jolson is all ham and razzmatazz, he tries so hard to show you he really means it that I always feel like he doesn’t mean a word of it and by the time he slows right down to sing “I’d walk a million miles for one of your smiles (big gulp) my ma (big swoop) aaa mmy (pointless flourish on last note)” you feel like crying for all the wrong reasons. Gene Kelly, on the other hand, is so light that he leaves space for the listener (or viewer if you’re watching the film) to share the experience, rather than bludgeoning them into submission.
I have been reminded of this by the publication of a fascinating sounding book called Michelangelo’s Finger by Raymond Tallis. In it, Professor Tallis discusses why pointing, so apparently simple, is actually an incredibly complicated and transcendent act. I half-heard him talking about it on Start The Week while I was getting ready to leave for work a few weeks ago, and then came across a mention of the book in The Guardian a little later. The central thesis of the book, as I understand it, is that, although the act of pointing is apparently simple, it is an incredibly complicated and culturally vital activity. What caught my ear on the radio was Tallis’s notion that the act of pointing implies that the person who sees you pointing will understand that there is something of interest to look at and that this implies a shared sense of culture, which defines humanity. I remember hearing Stephen Fry point out the futility of pointing in the direction of a thrown stick to a dog because the dog will look at the finger rather than the stick, but it had never occurred to me how important this is. Imagine, every time you point at something, you are confirming your humanity by placing your self in a transcendent “other” place.
I love the idea that the essence of humanity can be iterated by such a simple action. It seems to me that art, at its best, tells us something about how we live. Bad art merely tries to provoke an emotion in the passive viewer/listener/reader, good art provokes a stream of thoughts and sensations the end result of which may or may not be emotional. In rehearsals or in preparing a production, we are often trying to find the simplest and most direct ways to communicate ‘the thing’ that the play is about (and discovering what ‘the thing’ is in the first place is one of the hardest parts of the process). Many of the greatest plays find an apparently simple metaphor that perfectly captures a more complex idea (the storm at the beginning of The Tempest, Willie Loman’s job as a salesman), but the idea that our innate humanity can be summed up by one gesture is so breathtakingly, beautifully simple that it takes my breath away in the way that Al Jolson never could.
Last week I heard two programmes on Radio 4 within the space of an hour which seemed strongly connected and set me thinking. First, I heard Peter Brook talking about his new production 11 and 12 (on at Tramway in April) on Start the Week. There has always seemed to be something quite elemental in Brook’s work – a search for some basic truths of life that has seen him explore some of the great world myths and stories, including The Mahabharata, as well as head of on a journey through Africa with a group of actors in the 1970s. Brook is always fascinating to hear because he has such a restless, inquiring mind – always exploring, never satisfied but always defining interesting points on the journey. As a side note, he was particularly interesting about politicians and the common belief that they lie to us. Like any actor, he said, a politician can only be convincing if he or she believes absolutely in what he or she is saying. To me, this idea is much more interesting than assuming that, say, Tony Blair lied about Iraq.
Immediately after the programme came A History of the World in 100 Objects – British Museum director Neil McGregor’s new series which aims to do exactly what the title suggests. The item under discussion was an Assyrian clay tablet more than two and half thousand years old. In 1872, only a dozen years after The Origin of Species had been published, a story startlingly similar to the Biblical story of the Flood, but much older, was found on this tablet. The man who translated it and realised its significance was an autodidact named Charles Smith who was apparently so excited by his discovery that he began to dance around the room stripping off his clothes, to the understandable alarm of those in the room with him. This discovery caused some difficulty for the religious (and continues to do so for those of a fundamentalist persuasion) because it seemed to contradict the idea that the bible was the word of God. Was God perhaps a plagiarist?
The answer is that there are some stories that are so fundamental and important that they will continue to be retold and reinvented (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks makes the argument that there is a fundamental difference in the intention of the two stories). The flood myth that appears in the epic of Gilgamesh appears in many civilisations. These stories are mythical in the best sense of the word, which to me suggests something that is fundamental to our understanding of life rather than untrue. There is actually something unnervingly truthful about great myths, which I suppose is why they survive, they seem to make us understand something about ourselves without us necessarily completely understanding what it is – more like an intuition. This gets to the heart of what I think art should do – make us sense something about ourselves without necessarily understanding what it is that we now understand.
Peter Brook’s restless search has seen him continue to work into his 80s and he seems to tap into that same sense of indefinable truth that myths contain. Although 11 and 12 has had a mixed response, it will still be fascinating to see his latest thoughts.
I recently took my four old son to see Up, the new Pixar film. It's very good - well written, beautifully (and expensively) made and very sophisticated in that rather slick way that Pixar seems to have nailed for making films that work just as well for both adults and children. The opening of the film is an astonishing montage sequence that tells the life story of the central character Carl - voiced by Ed Asner - from his first boyhood meeting with his future wife Ellie to his present status as grumpy old widower in five minutes of beautifully observed animation.
The real story then begins, but everything in the opening sequence is necessary to our understanding of the rest of the film. Without spoiling things for anyone who might be planning to see the film, I'll just say that there are several action sequences later on in the film that involve savage dogs. My son got quite upset at these scenes - particularly a night-time one where Carl, his young companion Russell and their canine companion are surrounded by the dogs, who are all under the malevolent control of the antagonist Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). I reassured my son that everything would be alright in the end and we settled down again, but the final showdown on the top of an airship was too much for him and we had to leave – him in floods of tears, me wanting to know how the inevitable ending would be played out. "Up" was clearly following a traditional narrative in which good would triumph over evil – Muntz would be defeated and Carl would find a new place to live - and we were at the stage of the final complication before the denouement. But why would my son know this? Archetypal story structure is clearly something that has to be learned, however inherent it may appear. There are certain rules that must be followed for a satisfying narrative - and there is something satisfying about a well-told traditional narrative – and storytellers know that they mess with these rules at their peril. It would be inconceivable for Muntz to triumph – there would riots in the cinema. The skill in working with archetypal genres is keeping us engaged with how the inevitable ending will be achieved. We know that Gary Cooper will have to win the shoot-out in "High Noon" and that Catherine Bennet will have to marry Mr Darcy, but we don’t know how it will happen. Robert McKee has observed that satisfying films always have a scene that is made inevitable in the minds of the audience by an early occurrence – the showdown between Robert Shaw and the shark in "Jaws" has to happen from the moment he scrapes his nails down the blackboard.
I was telling a friend of mine (who also happens to be a storyteller) about the incident in the cinema and we got talking about context. He told me about some students who had told him that they had been to see “United 93” (about the hijacked plane that crashed on 9/11) with someone who hadn’t realised the context and was completely devestated by the ending – he had assumed this was a straightforward good v. evil film in which, whatever the odds, good would triumph in the end.
Archetypal stories are a source of fascination for me, and Bruno Bettelheim writes persuasively in “The Uses of Enchantment” about their purpose in fairy tales. Archetypes are necessary for us to discover things about the world and to understand how it works: we need the stories to answer the questions we don’t even consciously realise we have - Bettelheim was a Freudian after all - and what better way to find the answers than listen to stories?
(If you haven’t seen Up, find an excuse and go and see it - you can see trailers for it here http://www.apple.com/trailers/disney/up/. If you’re interested in archetypes, try Bettelheim’s “The Uses of Enchantment” or Joseph Crane’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”; Robert McKee’s book on structure “Story” is very interesting, though primarily about film structure.)