I have always been curious about the modality of theatre and as a consequence, on the look out for new ideas, new forms. Recently I came across Paper Stages, which has just begun its second season, if you can call it that. To quote the website
Paper Stages is a festival of performance contained within the pages of a beautifully designed book, with each page containing a completely new work by a different artist. Collectively these artists invite you to perform their creations in various locations around the city, from side streets and parks to your own home.
Makes sense? Well, read the following blog from The Guardian, written by Maddy Costa, and things may become a little clearer.
Paper Stages takes the show from stage to page
Does a performance space have to be built of bricks and mortar, or could it be made from pen and ink? Paper Stages reinvents the form – and function – of a play.
Theatre may be ephemeral, but it leaves traces everywhere. We know what the Greeks who lived more than 2000 years ago watched on stage, and how they watched it, through written records, broken architecture and a precious few play texts that survived. We know very little about William Shakespeare, but we know his writing, because his colleagues and friends had the wit to publish it. Contemporary playwrights know they’ve made it when the publisher Methuen compiles their first anthology. And yet, the traces of theatre found in play texts are misleading, because they present living, breathing work as literature. Our notion of what theatre is and can be has exploded over the past 50 years, but have the published impressions of it kept pace?
If you consider Paper Stages, the answer is yes. These slim, neat books – there have been two so far – represent the work of some of Britain’s most exciting experimental theatre-makers. But rather than publish the scripts of their shows (where such things exist) or descriptions of what took place, they contain ideas for actions, interventions and small performances, to be carried out by the reader. As the introduction puts it, Paper Stages is not a book, but “a festival waiting patiently for you to assemble it”.
The project is the brainchild of Forest Fringe, a group led by theatre-makers Deborah Pearson and Andy Field. It was founded in 2007 to create an alternative, free festival at the heart of the Edinburgh fringe. In 2012, the dilapidated church hall they used as a venue was requisitioned, so the pair changed tack and asked everyone they hoped to work with to contribute to a book. Available in an Edinburgh cafe for the price of one hour of voluntary work, it offered a radically different way to engage with theatre amid the hubbub of the fringe: it was quiet, contemplative, and created its own economy that expressed non-capitalist values.
With the second book, which launched at the Arnolfini, in Bristol, in September and can again be acquired through voluntary work and at events to be staged around the country, Paper Stages is becoming central to the ways in which Pearson and Field are reimagining how theatre can be made and performed. As Field says, it invites “a community of artists with an enthusiasm for making performance in unlikely contexts to treat its pages as a context for performance, in much the same way as they do empty car parks, old warehouses and dusty church halls”. And it begins to answer the question of “how else we might think about publishing, if not as a means of documenting the work we’ve already made”.
Some of the works in Paper Stages offer clear instructions for what the reader/performer should do. Action Hero’s House Music, for instance, is the score for a symphony in which you are the musician and your instruments are a Hoover, a microwave and an electric toothbrush.Victoria Melody’s untitled piece invites you to borrow a dog and spend an afternoon living the way it does: take a meandering walk, communicate with strangers, stop to check out the scenery. Others are more abstract: a beautiful photographic work by Georgie Grace asks you to “know nothing about your life” and “forget who you are”, while Cody Lee Barbour’s piece is a richly textured prose poem that contains no guidance whatsoever for the reader.
It feels not just like a revolution in how theatre can be published, but also a reconsideration of what audience participation might mean. As Annie Rigby – whose contribution is a dance piece to be performed during a washing machine cycle – puts it: “One of the most fascinating things about making theatre is the unpredictability of how it unfolds for each audience member – what memories are sparked, what connections are made, what is taken away. Paper Stages makes even more space for theatre’s wonderful unpredictability.” What is particularly touching is what it tells audiences about their relationship with theatre. Most participatory work reinforces, however unintentionally, the notion that theatre is something made by other people. In Paper Stages, the instructions give the impression that theatre is something you can make, yourself, in your own front room.
For me, I’m not sure. Is this theatre or not? I like the idea and its inventiveness, I like the altruism that drives it, but I’m not convinced.
If you would like to read more you can, here, in an interview with Andy Fields for Exeunt Magazine. The same magazine even attempted to review some of the ‘plays’ from the original Paper Stages, last year. Have a read here and see what you think.