As the world marks the death of William Shakespeare, 400 years on, there have been many celebrations of his work across the globe. Today I want to share some of them – the ones that have particularly resonated with me. Here in Hong Kong, we have just had the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) performing some of the Histories, all the Henries, in repertoire, to great acclaim. The company then moved to Beijing, where those plays have never been been seen before. My first offering, therefore, is a lecture by Gregory Doran, artistic director of the RSC, given upon his return from this tour. Entitled Is Shakespeare Chinese? , Doran speaks beautifully about the universality of Shakespeare, and for those of you that follow Theatre Room, you will know that this is something that often raises questions for me….but more of this later.
As a theatre practitioner, generally people expect you, firstly, to love Shakespeare with a passion, and secondly, to have seen every single play he ever wrote. My answers to both of those inevitably provoke a surprised response, which I secretly quite like. Recently, one of my students, Nadia, chose a speech from King John to use in a solo performance employing some of the techniques of Jerzy Grotowski. The outcome was stunning, the words brought alive in an incredible way. I have never seen or read King John but that performance has now compelled me to do so. This brings to me to my next share, a series of Shakespeare’s monologues and soliloquies performed by some of the UK’s most respected actors. Filmed for the The Guardian and presented in two parts, they are very compelling viewing.
Another two-part documentary really caught my imagination. Made for the BBC and written and presented by historian Simon Schama, eponymously titled Simon Schama’s Shakespeares, they explore the world of Shakespeare and how it shaped his writing. They are both worth a watch as Schama manages to vividly connect the plays and their characters to the contemporary world in which they were written to exist.
And finally, in the interests of balance, another BBC production from their programme strand Arts Night, in which writer and broadcaster Andrew Marr champions some great Renaissance dramatists who, he posits, have been neglected because they worked at the same time as William Shakespeare.
I have been intrigued by an article in The Independent, by Emily Jupp, about the latest offering from immersive theatre company You Me Bum Bum Train. Founded in 2004, the company has been at the cutting edge of the immersive theatre form, winning awards for their work which relies heavily on significant groups of volunteer performers. Jupp writes the article having experienced being one of those volunteers.
You Me Bum Bum Train: The latest journey into challenging immersive theatre
As a volunteer at the immersive theatre production of You Me Bum Bum Train, I’ve been able to do things I wouldn’t normally do. I’ve fixed two sewing machines, I’ve lugged furniture around, I’ve painted walls and I’ve felt incredibly capable and resourceful while doing them. Tackling things outside your comfort zone is at the heart of the You Me Bum Bum Train experience, where an audience member, or “Passenger”, is thrown into the heart of the action.
From tonight, Passengers will arrive at the old Foyles bookshop building in London where the new YMBBT show takes place, and be hurtled from one short scene to the next, in each of which they have to improvise their part while the rest of the cast react. The Passenger has no idea what is going on behind each door and the YMBBT team would like to keep it that way. They don’t even have publicity photos. Instead, the founders strike silly poses against surreal backdrops – see right. So I can’t reveal what’s happening this year. But previous scenes have involved discovering you’re the head of MI5 and making a world-changing decision or having to operate a forklift truck without any guidance.
In each scene the audience member is the focus of attention and the cast of volunteers – who aren’t professional actors but who often have skills or experience relating to the context of the scene – interact with that Passenger. Each scene is timed and during the one I was cast in we had about two minutes before resetting and then running the scene again with the next Passenger. There are about 70 Passengers passing through in one night, so it’s frantic.
Kate Bond and Morgan Lloyd founded You Me Bum Bum Train at art school in Brighton in 2004. It was held in the basement of an office block. “I found it very depressing trying to find something that meant something to me at art school,” says Bond. “A lot of art is very egocentric but what I love about this is there is no one leader and it’s not a production where every scene is rigidly fixed, so it’s accessible for everyone. No volunteer ever gets turned away.”
YMBBT has grown to huge proportions. It was awarded the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust prize for its show in 2012 at the Barbican in London and an Olivier award for outstanding achievement. Stephen Fry, Dominic West, Jude Law and Sir Ian McKellen are just some of the show’s celebrity fans, but there aren’t many detailed reviews or articles about the experience. That’s because secrecy is key.
“If a Passenger has been forewarned then they always say they regret knowing about it,” says Bond. “In the early days, people would just find a flyer in a pub saying You Me Bum Bum Train, a time and a location and nothing else.”
In a recent show, one Passenger had been told by his friend that they were going to see Billy Elliot and had no idea what would happen. “He had to take a break from the show because he was shaking and he just wasn’t prepared for what was going on, but he said it was amazing, he just felt overwhelmed.”
“A lot of the shy people say if they knew what they were going to do they would never have taken part but they get a huge confidence boost from realising they can.”
The show is run on a shoestring budget; props are scavenged from websites like Freecycle and car boot sales. It’s amazing how detailed and realistic they are considering they started with a building site three months ago. In one of the scenes I rehearsed for, the scene director suddenly stopped talking to examine the ceiling. “It still needs cornicing. It won’t look right without it,” he said. The cornicing was added the next day.
YMBBT receives a grant from the Arts Council to help with running costs, and Bond and Morgan pay themselves a small wage (Bond is on working tax credits), but the army of volunteers are all unpaid, aside from being given meals. “It would be nice if Bum Bum could give back more,” says Bond. “We have a fantasy of treat chutes going through to every floor with snacks and vending machines and making it more Willy Wonka for all the volunteers, but we haven’t been able to yet.”
They’ve been criticised for not paying, but the production couldn’t happen any other way, Lloyd and Bond worked out that a ticket (£48.50 for this production) would cost around £2,000 if they paid their volunteers minimum wage and broke even on the running costs.
The best bit about the volunteer experience is that people from all walks of life and all ages get involved. “It makes people more open-minded because it is such an open-door policy and you meet people from different backgrounds,” says Bond. “We had a lawyer who asked to volunteer and afterwards she became a human rights lawyer instead of a commercial lawyer because of the experience.”
The bonding element has even produced some Bum Bum marriages over the years, says Bond. “A bit like going to war, it brings people together, and they achieve things that are really huge.”
The criticisms leveled at Lloyd and Bond go back a number of years, some of which from 2012 you can read here in The Guardian and The Stage. I think it raises an interesting issue for immersive theatre, which by it’s nature often require very large casts indeed. Also, if you audience are expected to become characters in the story, as is often the case, why not invite non-professional actors to be part of the permanent cast?
In a not unconnected story from The Guardian in September a German theatre company, Schauspielhaus Bochum asked their audience to pack into a refrigerated truck to give them a glimpse into the hardships experienced by the migrants and refugees trying to reach Europe from war zones.
The event was billed as a memorial to the 71 people, four of them children, who were found dead inside an abandoned lorry in Austria. About 200 people took part in the event, entering a 7.5 tonne refrigerated truck similar in size to the one found in Austria.
Next to it on the ground was a rectangle marked out to measure 2.5 metres by six metres which represented the size of the original truck’s interior.
Seventy-one volunteers first tried to stand inside the rectangle before trying to cram inside the lorry. When they did the truck’s doors could not be closed.
“The lorry was completely full, the people were squeezed right up against each other,” explained Olaf Kroek, the theatre’s artistic adviser.
“This action is not disrespectful,” he said. “What is disrespectful is the political reality in Europe that people suffering so greatly hand over thousands of euros and must take such unsafe routes while for the rest of us Europeans it is so easy … to travel in the other direction.”
Both pieces pay testament to the ever-changing nature of theatre as an art form and in an increasingly digital world, it should come as no surprise that audiences are demanding, and expecting, their theatre experiences to be more visceral, more real.
With apologies to all my regular readers, Theatre Room has been on an extended summer break. During that time I have been storing up a host of the all things theatre to share and I’m going to start with an article published last week in UK’s The Stage. Written by Lee Anderson, How dramaturgy is finding its place in British theatreexplores the growing role of the dramaturg in the UK. As I have written here before, dramaturgy is a difficult beast to define, not least because it takes many forms. As Anderson quite rightly explains, in the UK, the adoption of the role of the dramaturg has been sluggish, simply because the playwright dominates. The article itself gives a good definition of the role and purpose of the dramaturg in the theatre making process.
Dramaturgy is a tough nut to crack. Despite occupying a vital role in countries such as Germany and across continental Europe, we in the UK have struggled to pin down a precise definition for the dramaturg. Because of the playwright’s pre-eminent position within our own theatre culture, the tendency has been to conflate the dramaturg with the literary manager. Meanwhile, the dramaturg of German theatre tradition has long fulfilled the role as a creative curator; collaborating closely with a director or specific theatre to conceptualise a season of work.
But with a new generation of theatremakers now inspired by practices from abroad, these artists are now shaking things up on British stages. Influenced by new models of working and reinvigorated by bold aesthetic choices, directors and playwrights in the UK are challenging traditional ways of working and adopting a fresh, internationalist approach to their work. As the landscape begins to shift, so too is our understanding of the dramaturg’s role within it.
One of the reasons the dramaturg has remained difficult to define is to do with the fluidity of the term itself. There are no hard and fast rules for mapping the precise function of dramaturgy. As a practice, its principles are based on adaptability and versatility.
Duska Radosavljevic, lecturer in European and British theatre studies at Kent University, and author of Theatre Making: Interplay Between Text and Performance in the 21st Century, considers the dramaturg’s role to be above all else a relational one; not anchored to any specific criteria, but responsive to the demands of the process. “The dramaturg’s job is often determined by the kind of relationship they have with any given collaborator,” she explains, “so in terms of methodology or models of working, they don’t always apply in the same way from one process to the next.” In other words, it is far from being an exact science. In the absence of an all-encompassing definition, it is easy to see how the dramaturg has remained such a puzzling concept for many.
Joel Horwood worked as dramaturg on Show 5 – A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts
When the Lyric Hammersmith’s artistic director Sean Holmes launched Secret Theatre, playwright Joel Horwood came on board as associate dramaturg. Born out of the Lyric’s earlier production of Simon Stephens/Sebastian Nubling’s Three Kingdoms, Secret Theatre was created with the intention of building on this production’s cross-cultural experiment and forming a permanent ensemble of actors committed to making work outside the hierarchic parameters of more traditional theatre. For Horwood, his role as associate dramaturg involved being “whatever the director needs me to be, while at the same time, maintaining my own creative voice. It wasn’t strict or formal and I think if it had been then we couldn’t have made the work we did. A traditional set-up might not have led to something so instinctual.”
Joel Horwood, dramaturg
The dramaturg thrives in the space between the creative and critical disciplines, scrutinising the decision-making process while generating his or her own creative ideas to stimulate the devising process itself. “I think I gave myself the task during the creation of Show 5 of being ‘logic police’,” explains Horwood. “I just wanted every moment to be clearly thought through, to really expose and clarify the themes and to be entirely and utterly rigorous.” When it came to Show 5 – A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts – Horwood adopted a more active role and provided instrumental support for the overall devising practice – both in structuring much of the action in collaboration with Holmes and contributing ideas and stimulus for the actors to work with: “The really fun stuff in making this show was in the details of the process, rewriting and reimagining Shakespeare, for example. I would reimagine an ‘impossible’ scene from a Shakespeare play as a ‘task’ for the company and then give the company that ‘task’ to perform. So, Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene became: tell us about your first kiss while someone else in the cast falls passionately in love with you.”
It is a model of working that draws consciously on European dramaturgical practice – combining conceptual inventiveness with critical rigour. It is this critical impulse that is essential to the dramaturg’s practice. While the principle elements that define British and European models of dramaturgy show significant cultural differences, it is this analytical function that underpins both disciplines. Whether it is scrutinising the decision-making process, acting as a spur to the director or playwright’s vision or helping to build a conceptual framework for a given production, the dramaturg is often something of a pathfinder. As dramaturg for Robert Icke’s Oresteia for the Almeida Theatre’s Greeks season, Radosavljevic describes her role as akin to that of an interrogator – whose task it was to test the conceptual rigour of Icke’s bold reimagining of Aeschylus text: “Sometimes the ideas became modified as a result of my questions. It was very important for me to have some ambiguities ironed out and I often questioned what the thinking was behind particular decisions.”
It is a function of the role that Rob Drummer believes is central to his own process as associate dramaturg of the Bush Theatre: “It’s about trying to ask as many questions as possible, as early as possible, about the story of that play, the gesture of the play and the central question of that play. It’s about giving the writer a sounding board. To give the writer a point of resistance – something to react against. It’s about guiding a text to an audience.”
Traditionally, the dramaturg’s role in our own theatre culture has been inextricably connected with the development of new writing. Unlike the Regietheatre tradition of modern German theatre, in which an emphasis on reconceptualising classic texts has resulted in a director-based dramaturgy, the British theatre dramaturg has focused ostensibly on artist – namely, playwright – development. It is a model that prioritises critical development above creative intervention.
For Drummer, whose day-to-day job involves managing the 18 new plays currently under commission, it is a process that relies on building a relationship with individual artists and establishing a dialogue with playwrights in particular: “We build a development process that has several dramaturgical stages. This could include a single day of working with the playwright, talking through notes on a script or it could include work with actors and directors. It could include several workshop weeks. All of that work is activated through my relationship with those writers.”
Nevertheless, even within a culture that locates the playwright at the centre of its activity, the influence of theatre practices from abroad have continued to influence artists and playwrights: “We’re finding that more and more playwrights in this country are increasingly exposed to theatre from around the world,” says Drummer. “They’re exposed to new and interesting ways of telling stories. We want to harness that and experiment with how we can push our theatre, our artists and our audiences.” This commitment to expanding the boundaries of what is theatrically possible has resulted in a programme as diverse as it is eclectic. Recent works such as Caroline Horton’s bouffon-inspired Islands and American playwright Marco Ramirez’s The Royale testify to the dramaturg’s role as an advocate – supporting the work of artists and curating a season of work.
Despite a range of approaches, the dramaturg remains something of an unsung hero. In Radosavljevic’s words, the dramaturg occupies an “invisible role”, operating beneath the radar of the creative process they are serving. And yet the dramaturg’s liminal status remains his or her greatest asset, whether as conceptual curator, creative pathfinder or critical provocateur.
A couple of weeks ago an english writer Elizabeth Day, caused a bit of a storm amongst UK theatre folk by stating publicly in an article for The Observer, Lenny Henry, thanks for bringing theatre to life, that she didn’t much like the theatre. Nowthis seemed like heresy to many, especially as she went on to state that she much preferred cinema. Her article (linked above) was predicated around a performance she had seen where a well know performer, Lenny Henry, had forgotten his lines during a performance:
He apologised to the audience and left the stage for several minutes to compose himself. I confess: it was one of the best things I have ever seen on stage. Up until that point, the play had seemed stilted and dated. Henry’s collapse was a real, human moment amid an unconvincing make-believe. The unexpectedness of it added a frisson of surprise to proceedings. For the duration of the play, we were thrillingly uncertain as to whether he was going to make it to the end in one piece or not.
Lenny Henry in Educating Rita
She went on to say that
My dislike of the theatre is a cast-iron way of offending people I’ve only just met. I did it the other night at dinner, sitting between a lawyer and a banker, both of whom were talking effusively about plays they had recently seen. When their attentions turned to me, I said what I thought. Namely, that theatre is overrated and I’d rather go to the cinema any day of the week. There was an appalled silence. “You can’t possibly mean that,” said the lawyer, before launching into a disquisition on the unparalleled immediacy of the live experience. The banker proceeded to namecheck a succession of “amazing” theatrical productions in order to convince me of the error of my ways. Because saying you don’t like theatre is a bit like saying you don’t like fish. No one believes you, so they simply start listing different types. Smoked salmon? No. Tuna? No. Fish fingers? No, mate. Still fish.
She spoke about the majority of plays being average, in her opinion, and that they
……..do not reflect how people actually speak because dialogue in most modern plays is generally produced to show how clever the writer is or how gifted the actor delivering it is…….Plays are long. Unnecessarily, self-indulgently long…….But somehow, because it’s theatre, we’re all supposed to love it and talk in hushed, reverent tones about how great it is. I’m not sure why this should be. It feels like we have lower critical standards for plays than almost any other art form. [In addition] there is a lot of bog-standard dross to sift through and sometimes it feels as if we are too worried to say what we actually think in case we seem stupid or uncultured……
Claiming that you prefer the cinema to the theatre is a bit like this. You’re viewed with a sort of patronising suspicion, as if you can’t be expected to understand the myriad subtleties of the dramatic art.
I can see where Day is coming from, as the basis for her polemic is something as a theatre educator I have to explore with my students on an annual basis. Their experience of storytelling through performance generally comes from cinema rather than theatre with little understanding of the differences between the art forms and why theatre works in an entirely different way. However, I do find her comments prosaic in the extreme as well as a little naïve. Not surprisingly, Day’s piece has generated significant discussion, not least in the comment section of the article itself, which is worth a read as is the piece in its entirety.
The first public response to Day’s column was from Amber Massie-Blomfield, Executive Director of Camden’s People Theatre. In an open letter, Massie-Blomfield contended that perhaps Day had been going to the wrong theatres, although she does concede that serious issues were being raised by the piece.
Too many people feel that it’s exclusive. Too many have experiences in theatre that don’t resonate with their own lives. There is rightly an onus on theatres, especially the state-funded ones, to tackle this, and to ensure we create a theatre ecology representative of the country we live in.
Where I think she might be right is in her disapproval of the over-hyped enthusiasm with which many so-so theatre shows are greeted by audiences and often by critics, too. I hardly ever see a show now where a section of the audience doesn’t give the performance a standing ovation. That sort of thing used to happen only on press night. Now it seems to happen at every performance, as if there is a physical need to confirm that the time and effort and cost of going to the theatre has all been worth it. At Waiting for Godot at the Barbican last month, the man next to me, who had dozed his way through most of the performance, whooped and hollered at the end. It was the liveliest he had been during the entire production.
I’ve witnessed this myself all too often and it does seem to becoming increasingly the norm.
One of my favourite responses, from fellow Drama teacher Chris Bhantoa, just about sums up my gut reaction to Elizabeth Day’s scribblings – acerbic, dismissive and humorous in equal measure In Defence of Theatre is a wonderful rebuttal. Well done Chris!
Theatre Room is closed for the summer. Along with much of the educational world (apologies to my antipodean readers) we are done for another academic year and headed off for sunnier (or in my case, cooler) climes. Having said this, a few things have happened in the world of theatre over the last few weeks that give some pause for thought, so over the next few days I will be writing about these.
However, today I want to share a beautiful place I found on the first stop of my summer holiday. Based in Helsinki for few days, I took a ferry across the Gulf of Finland to Estonia to have a wander around the old city of Tallinn and turning a corner, stumbled across the NUKU Theatre and Museum. Nuku (which means puppet in Estonian) is the current guise of the Estonian State Puppet Theatre which was founded in 1952.
Set beautifully in restored buildings, parts of which date back to the medieval period, NUKU comprises a puppet museum, puppetry research centre, puppet making workshops and various sized theatres (with another currently under construction within a neighbouring building) as well as housing the Estonian office of UNIMA (Union Internationale de la Marionette). The museum’s exhibits are curated using the latest technology, with an extensive puppet and marionette collection that includes those created in-house as well as pieces from around the world amongst which are shadow puppets from Indonesia, bunraku puppets from Japan and exquisite old world Eastern European puppets.
The theatres had just closed for the summer and a couple of the exhibits were under a bit of reorganisation so it was quiet when I visited and I ended up talking to one of the staff, Maria Usk, who turned out to be the museum’s director. As a result I ended up getting my own private little tour from Maria which was just wonderful.
So if you find yourself in Tallinn, do go to NUKU. It is really well worth a visit if you are interested in the history and current practice of European puppet theatre. A real gem.
In an article originally written by Rosita Boisseau for Le Monde and then published in translation in The Guardian, Costumes of Complexity makes interesting reading about the exhibition and the history of costume in Asian theatre:
It is surely something of a miracle to explore 2,000 years of theatre in Asia in a single exhibition. But From Nô to Mata Hari, currently at the Musée National des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet in Paris, does just that, showing costumes used in traditional Kathakali dance in India and Japanese Noh drama, Thai Khon and Balinese Barong masks, while also explaining the connections between them. This confrontation produces a real aesthetic shock: it is unusual to find in the same place, almost face to face, these dramatic forms, often very old, certainly infinitely complex and remarkably beautiful.
In geographical terms the exhibition, which features almost 300 items – masks, shadow puppets, costumes and films – reaches from India to Japan, Thailand to China, deploying a mass of detail. These simple yet elegant theatrical forms, some of which are covered by the Unesco convention on intangible cultural heritage, create an exciting set of postures and colours. “The exhibition was designed as a spectacle,” says Sophie Makariou, head of Musée Guimet. “We couldn’t make speech and movement part of the show, even if a sequence of several plays is being staged at the same time, but the costumes are heavy with history and symbolism. We have tried to enliven the various spaces with a breath of theatre.”
The overall effect allows the visitor to observe how apparently very dissimilar styles fit together. “The original plan was for me to work exclusively on the Beijing opera,” says Aurélie Samuel, who curated the exhibition and heads the Guimet textile collections. “Then as I advanced with my research I started picking up on common ground between the various dramatic arts. Most of them have religious origins and started in temples. In moving from the sacred to the profane, from street to stage, they retained a very spare approach. But the often extravagant costumes, always loaded with meaning, serve as a decor. Also all the actors in these plays are men.”
“We think,” she adds, that “the first theatre, born in India, was an offshoot of Buddhism, an influence shared by all the religions [which originated] in Asia.”
Fair enough, but what has Mata Hari, who was born in 1876, to do with this broad panorama? Born Margaretha Zelle, the famous spy first appeared under the guise of Mata Hari (“rising sun” in Malay) in 1905, at an evening of exotic entertainment staged by Musée Guimet. At the height of the Orientalist fashion, her show, designed in consultation with industrialist and art collector Emile Guimet, was inspired by Brahmanic ritual, midway between “an invocation to Shiva and a war dance”. It concluded with Javanese puppets. This number, which some spectators thought she performed naked, misled by her flesh-tinted suit, was staged in the museum library on the first floor, decorated like a Hindu temple.
Here she awaits us, for one of the high points of a deliberately dramatic exhibition, as we progress in our understanding of the many traditions and dresses presented here. We are treated to a close-up of five costumes for dance, drama and mime.
A minimalist decor – an embroidered curtain, a table and two chairs – serves as a backdrop for these sumptuous robes. The equation of Asian theatre found in Beijing opera, with its combination of song, music, dance, poetry and acrobatics, is a singular incarnation. This art form finally coalesced in the 19th century, but it has roots in 13th-century Chinese opera. It dramatises the history of China and its myths, but also stories of thwarted romance, comic police investigations and folk tales. The costume, sublime and heavily ornamented, provides a host of clues essential to the show.
The unbelievable court robe that features in the exhibition reveals the social status of its character. The dragon and wave motifs, head-dress sporting pink pom-poms and pheasant plumes tell us that a general would have worn this garment. This type of geometrical robe distinguished a high-ranking official, indicating not only his age, social status and importance, but also his feelings.
Over and above its meaning, the costume from the Beijing opera contributes to an appearance of luxury while exaggerating the actor’s gestures. The latter, though relatively simple and clear, carefully composed, reach out into the surrounding space thanks to the supple motion of the long plumes and ample sleeves.
One feature which was specific to the Beijing opera was the “water sleeves”, fitted to the costumes of both male and female characters. They were put to many uses, flicked and waved in the air, but also concealing the mouth (while eating) and cheeks (down which tears were running).
The existence of this costume is a miracle in itself. It belonged to the actor Shi Pei Pu (1938-2009), a leading light of the Beijing opera. In the mid-1960s the Cultural Revolution initiated by Mao Zedong and his wife Jiang Qing, a former actor, set about eradicating such bourgeois aberrations. Performances were banned, actors prosecuted and even murdered, and costumes burned. Shi managed to save some of his by hiding them. After emigrating to France in the 1980s he danced again in shows he had personally redesigned. So at least some of his wardrobe was saved.
Kathakali (literally “story-play”) originated in Kerala, southern India, an offshoot of Kutiyattam, the oldest form of entertainment which is still performed in the subcontinent. In keeping with the larger-than-life heroes of this dramatic form, which includes music and dance, and was dreamt up by a well-read rajah in the 17th century, Kathakali delights in big sagas such as the Mahabharata or the Ramayana. Shows of this sort are generally staged near temples, in the open air, at nightfall or in the very early morning. “This theatre is inconceivable without a complete shift in body and mind,” says the specialist Françoise Grund.
The costumes are extravagant and oversized, weighing more than 10kg. This allows only limited movement, apart from the arms. But on the other hand the mass of the skirts and the diversity of facial mimicry exaggerate what movement there is. Costume is both dress and decor, fitting into a set with only very limited props, generally a stool and a small curtain, which changes colour to mark the entrance and exit of characters.
Makeup starts at least four hours before the performance, turning the face into a real mask, to such an extent that it gives the impression that any life has been wiped out. It is a key step in the process of integrating a character’s heroic attributes. After touching a copper bell, the frontier between the land of the living and the realm of the divine, each man in the troupe – here too they take the female roles as well – starts to apply makeup using the stem of a coconut leaf.
The symbolism of the colours enables the audience to identify the various categories of character: noble heroes are associated with green; red with villains; black, the colour of evil and death, for demons; lastly orange for women. Each category comprises about 50 roles, which actors learn in the course of a 10-year apprenticeship. Just eye movements bring into play a sophisticated form of gymnastics, placing high demands on the player.
Chutti – painstakingly cut out paper beards or ridges – are then added to the geometrically precise makeup motifs, in order to broaden the face with fantastic jowls. An aubergine seed is placed inside the lower eyelid, in order to redden the eye. Finally an equally impressive head-dress is fitted, to complete the face which no longer looks in the least bit human.
The actors are then wrapped in loads of fabric and overlapping skirts. Resembling some fascinating or monstrous doll, they attain an inhuman dimension commensurate with the gods they embody. The ritual may now begin, backed by the feverish rhythm of the drums, accompanied by cymbals and chanting.
Japan: Noh or the aesthetics of slowness
The decor-costume favoured by theatre in Asia attains a subtle plenitude with Noh costume. The fabric and embroidery provide the spectator with accurate and remarkably detailed information on the dramatic action, its characters, time and space. Noh theatre, which combines song, mime and masque, first appeared in the 14th century, driven by the actor Yusaki Kiyotsugu Kan’ami and his son Motokiyo Zeami. It gradually established a literary, philosophical and theatrical identity all of its own. It was Noh that first produced librettos, known as utai bon, or chant books, which contain the script, score and rules for performance. “This art form was particularly appreciated by Japanese emperors, samurai warriors, in short the aristocratic upper classes,” Samuel explains.
The brocaded, embroidered kimono exhibited by the Musée Guimet dates from the second half of the 18th century, a period when costume started to play an increasingly important part in the drama. Particularly emblematic of the social codes expressed by Noh, “it [costume] deployed geometrical shapes evoking paths,” Samuel adds. “The maple leaves, with their orange hues signify autumn in the woods. The darkish material and the preference for embroidery rather than a woven pattern mean that the character must be a woman.”
With progress in the techniques used for weaving and dyeing Noh kimonos became increasingly sophisticated, enhancing the magic and luxury of the dramatic ceremony. In contrast to Kabuki – another spectacular form of Japanese entertainment, which appeared in the 17th century, but in a more expressive, less elitist register – Noh emphasises slowness and suspended animation. It attaches particular importance to yugen, a subtly profound, less obvious grace.
Kimonos dialogue with masks, often fashioned out of cypress wood by famous sculptors, and painted white, then yellow. “An object for contemplation, it even became the focus of a cult, preserved and venerated by acting families,” says Hélène Bayou, an expert on Noh theatre. “How hallowed it is depends on the age of the mask and the length of the lineage of actors, who have handed down a quintessential art form and aesthetic cult.”
As is the case for most dramatic rituals in Asia, costume is an integral part of the show, or at least its process. The layers of kimonos are stitched on to the performer. The mask, smaller than a human face, is adapted to suit their face. It conditions acting: the eye slits are so narrow that little light enters, prompting the actor to internalise his part.
Always backed by musicians and a chorus which chants and recites, the very slow, almost weightless movement of the shite (leading player), accompanied by the waki (secondary role) unfolds on a stage, which always consists of a raised platform covered by a roof. A gangway connects the stage to the wings; a movement of the curtains punctuates players’ entry and exit. The backdrop sports a Japanese symbol of strength.
Thailand: Khon, the art of pantomime
The mask, representing the monkey god Hanuman, belongs to the masked Khon theatre of Thailand. It is made of papier-mache, metal, glass and mirrors. The general commanding the monkey army is one of the heroes in the Indian Ramayana epic, which travelled as far as Thailand, where it was adapted to become Ramakian. Rooted in pantomime this spectacular dramatic form is accompanied by an orchestra, including metallophones, xylophones, gongs and oboes. It brings to the stage battles between gods, demons and monkeys. Khon was first seen in palaces, then temples, only entering theatres in the early 20th century, its arrival coinciding with the end of the ban on women attending public entertainment.
Khon players are masked. They circle the stage, their bust facing the audience, but their head looking to one side. Mute, they mime the situations described by two narrators – one for the story, the other for dialogue – and a chorus, supported by the orchestra.The impressive Hanuman mask must have demanded long hours of work. A plaster mould was covered with about 15 layers of mulberry paper, bonded with rice glue. The shell was then sculpted and painted. Masks are always white. This one has a jewel in its mouth, another on the forehead. The associated figure is valiant, swift and light-footed, but not short of humour either, particularly in amorous encounters. He consequently became a popular character in Thailand. Contemporary Khon no longer uses masks, which have given way to makeup.
Bali: Barong, from dance to trance
The mask and costume are beautiful, but huge and frightening, so lifelike the beast might at any moment open its jaws and eat us whole. This extraordinary dragon-lion is in fact a protective figure, always overcoming the evil witch Rangda, and one of the heroes of Balinese mythology, which still delights audiences today. Barong dance is rooted in the struggle between these two protagonists’ armies, an ancestral combat that varies as one travels round Bali, sometimes featuring a wild boar, elsewhere a tiger.
The fight between good and evil is central to most drama in southern and south-eastern Asia. In Barong dance many characters – monkeys, witches, ogres, princes, the god Shiva – appear as the action unfolds. Though now a tourist attraction, it was originally performed in temples as a purification ritual, quickly achieving a trance-like effect. The dancers threaten one another with wavy kriss swords.
Several players are needed to make the dragon mask and costume dance. The whole apparatus – consisting of wood, leather, plant fibre, hair and feathers – weighs about 25kg. The more lively Barong becomes, the more effective it is in driving out evil spirits. “It makes a place sacred, too,” Samuel explains, “which is why it’s so important that it should travel far and wide.”
From Nô to Mata Hari, 2000 Years of Asian Theatre is at the Musée National des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet in Paris until 31 August
This week, actor, director and playwright Steven Berkoff stirred up a bit of controversy when he responded to a review of a new production of Othello by the Royal Shakespeare Company, which casts black actors in both the roles of Othello and Iago. The review was written by Paul Taylor, for The Independent and opens with the words The days when it was thought acceptable for a white actor to black up as Othello are well behind us. It was this that seemed to stoke Berkoff’s ire, which ended up with him taking to Facebook with the following post:
Not surprisingly, this provoked a rash of responses from his followers who both applauded and condemned Berkoff in equal measure. The Independent followed their original review with an article by Jess Denham, who managed to get further comment from the man himself:
I believe actors of all colour, particularly black actors, should be cast for the immensity of their talents and not the slack-jawed nod to political correctness.
To reserve, out of the hundreds of Shakespearian characters, the role of Othello for black people only, is a form of racism in reverse and to me, particularly obnoxious.
What drama does is express the fundamental core of human existence and to omit one play, is like taking a major key out of a piano. The immense range and passion of a role like Othello belongs to all humanity. In its performance, it reveals the deepest part of the human soul.
Some of the greatest performances seen over centuries have been when an actor has taken on that particular part from Edmund Kean onwards. I would like to see black actors not only play Othello, but Macbeth, Lear, Hamlet etc.
The production in question has been universally celebrated by the critics largely for the casting of Hugh Quarshie as Othello and Lucian Msamati as Iago (above). In his review Michael Billington comments that amongst other things the casting reinforces the historic bond between Othello and Iago, and helps to explain the trust the former places in his ensign allowing you tosee exactly why Iago would detest a Caucasian Cassio who tries to show his kinship with the men by taking part in a rap contest during the Cypriot drinking scene. Dominic Cavendish, writing for The Telegraph talks about a crucial shift of perspective…..that makes this event…electrifying and that a blow is struck for diversity without at all diluting the play’s perturbing power. These are strong affirmative words.
Now all of this of course is part of a much wider debate about the casting of BAME (Black, Asian, minority ethnic) actors in theatre and one not to be ignored. Of the play itself, Andrew Dickson writes an article for The Guardian, Othello: the role that entices and enrages actors of all skin colours, which explores the history surrounding the question of race in the play. But the crux of the discussion, highlighted by Berkoff’s post, is around colour-blind casting. An old friend of mine, theatre director Joe Harmston commented on Berkoff’s post thus:
It is appalling that black actors don’t get cast in what are seen as white roles – Hamlet, Lear, Stanley in The Birthday Party. A travesty that so many of our non-white colleagues find they have to go to the US to kick start great careers. Perhaps when we colour blind cast black actors in ‘white’ roles, we can think again of white actors in black roles but until then black actors are right to argue that Othello is theirs.
I tend to agree. However, for me as an international theatre educator based in South East Asia who needs to teach through the context of world theatre, the question of colour-blind casting is an ethical dilemma. I would love to direct my students in, say, A Raisin in the Sun, Sizwe Banzie is Dead, The Island or a whole host of plays that have indigenous Australians or native Maoris as central lead characters, but I just don’t feel that I can. Does that make a fiend of political correctness?
For me, though, devising remains a way of truly learning the art of theatre making and it is not surprising that most theatre and drama examination courses have an assessable element to them that requires students to collaborate, devise and create new work. It allows student theatre makers to respond to what is of interest to them in whatever style and form they think most appropriate, and this is its power – the power of immediacy. In a recent article published in The Guardian, Nathan Curry and Kat Joyce from theatre company Tangled Feet talk about the strengths of devised work, their process and how it allows them to respond much more quickly to a subject than perhaps a more traditional playwright can. The full article is here, but is an extract:
Devising offers a swift way of responding to a turbulent political situation. We are currently in rehearsals and able to react immediately to new information emerging from research and conversations with healthcare professionals.
The devising process is a lot like doing a jigsaw with a blindfold on. Early on, there is a lot of playing, testing and failing and a huge amount of material left on the rehearsal room floor. The second half of the rehearsals have become about fitting everything together in a shape that is dramaturgically strong and creates a journey for the audience with well-crafted character arcs – often the biggest challenge for devised work. Our design team are in the room reacting to discoveries we are making and throwing new ideas at us to explore.
What is so rewarding is that a group of artists reacting to each other and riffing through new thoughts enables beautiful and surprising theatrical discoveries. With sound, design, choreography, aerial work and script all evolving alongside each other, it can often feel chaotic: but sometimes the most powerful moments come into focus through some sort of alchemy.
Just for interest, here is an example of Tangled Feet’s work. A piece called Push, which, to quote the company, is a funny, irreverent and insightful look at the relationships between new mothers and their offspring, and the expectations of society around them. Performed in the very outdoor spaces that parents inhabit, Push tells stories that everyone can recognise.
Devised theatre: ten tips for a truly creative collaboration
Be passionate about your source material
It might be a story you love, an injustice that enrages you or a question you can’t stop asking – just make sure you’ve chosen a starting point that fascinates you. This curiosity will keep you alive to new possibilities, make you fearless when things get tough, and ensure you’re always digging deeper.
If you don’t care, why should an audience?
Do your research
The more you know about your starting material, the freer your imagination will be within it. Research nourishes rehearsals, provides a huge wealth of material from which to devise, and gives authenticity to your final production. The latter is important; if an audience questions the world you create, it’s almost impossible for them to relax into the fantasies you’re weaving. Of course, if you’re creating a clown show, ignore all the above; ignorance will be bliss.
Get your material out there as soon as possible
Nothing gets me off my backside like the prospect of public humiliation. Without the pressure of a reading or work-in-progress night, I wouldn’t create anything. Early previews will stop you over-thinking, get you creating, allow you to test material and (hopefully) build a buzz for the show. If premature exposure sounds too terrifying, you can always invite supportive friends into your rehearsals.
Unite the whole company around a common purpose
Set aside some time early on to explore everyone’s personal objectives for making the piece. Then, as an ensemble, write a unified mission statement for the show. This might range from explicitly political aims to simply wanting to create a joyous evening of fun – it might even change as the project moves forward. It will provide an essential framework against which you can judge every decision you make and ensures that everyone is travelling in the same direction.
Keep an open mind
Few things will choke creativity more than your brainy ideas about what you think will work. Admit that you know nothing, keep an open mind and listen attentively to the people with whom you’re working. The smallest comments can spark Eureka moments, and there really is no such thing as a bad idea. Some of my favourite scenes were inspired by tiny glimmers in otherwise awful improvisations. It’s often the most disastrous rehearsals that tell me where I’m going wrong. As long as you’re venturing into the unknown, there’s no such thing as failure.
The importance of story is relative
Some people swear that story is everything, but it really depends on the show. If I’m adapting a pre-existing narrative, story will undoubtedly be high on my priorities. But sometimes it will only emerge once we start connecting the material we’ve made. In comedy, it’s often just a framework from which to hang the gags. What’s certainly true is that an early obsession with plot will close you off from many discoveries.
Always look for counterpoints
If your subject matter is serious, look for the moments of humour. If you’re doing comedy, remember that it’s probably not funny for the characters involved. Similarly, don’t get stuck in endless dialogue; the way you tell a story through action, movement, music, design, sound and lighting is just as important as the words.
Everyone works differently
Devising doesn’t have to mean endless improvisations. Let people create material in whichever way works best for them. Some of the best scenes will come when people are just given time to go home and write.
Don’t be precious
Throw away your rehearsal plans if they’re not helping, give your best jokes to another actor, consider moving your final scene to the start, simplify the plot-line, and mercilessly edit your show to the shortest length possible. I’ve never regretted any cuts or changes I’ve made to a show; getting the rhythm right trumps everything.
Stay optimistic and enjoy yourselves
Things will inevitably go wrong, but remember to keep looking for the joy and inspiration to create. Stuck in a hole? Play a silly game or get outside and do something fun. You’d be surprised how many good ideas come when you’re not trying.
I think these might become my Ten Commandments for all collaborative work from now on. On a final note, John Walton writes a great blog, in which he details the rehearsals of all his new work in great and interesting detail which you can read here , and if you want a good wide read about the history of devised, collaborative work, Devising Performance, A Critical History by Deirdre Heddon and Jane Milling is worth a go.
I’ve got a great mixed bag of talks to share today from various TED× events around the world and all of them worth a listen when you have a spare ten minutes or so. Most people are familiar with TED talks, but theatre makers are rarely given a platform. However, the independently, locally organised TED× events often have theatre professionals exploring their craft for a wider audience.
The first comes from TED× Stormont, in Northern Ireland where Tom Bowtell, from interactive theatre makers Coney, discusses the powerful potential of offering theatre audiences opportunity to have a say over how the story ends, by inviting them to participate in the creation of the theatrical experience. Entitled Can Theatre Actually Change Anything? it is a super little presentation.
I have quite a few others to share, but I am going to finish with a wonderfully insightful talk from theatre director John Wright, one of the co-founders of Trestle. Entitled Rediscovering playfulness in actingand given at TED× Square Mile (London), Wright talks about how we love our (dead) gurus in actor training, the constraints they place upon us and why play should be at the centre of our creative processes.
Today I want to share a series of articles about playwriting that I have recently stumbled across. They are published under creative commons on the website The Conversation, which sources its writing from the academic and research communities in the US, Australia and the UK, and is a real find in itself.
Across a number of articles, collectively called On Playwriting Julian Meyrick, Professor of Creative Arts at Flinders University, writes about the history of the play, what makes a play ‘work’ and how playwriting has evolved. Meyrick is writing for the Australian edition of The Conversation so the articles have an antipodean leaning, but are relevent where ever you are reading this. I am sharing the first one herewith links to the subsequent ones at the end. Definitely worth a read.
Need a stage coach? Why some plays work and others don’t
We all know whether a given play, film or TV drama “works” or not, but it’s often difficult to pinpoint why. This is the first of four articles in which I will try and cast playwriting in a broader light than is usually the case.
Ordinarily playwriting is a matter for “tips” or for critical review – best-practice advice from the producers’ perspective or final judgement from the consumers’.
This kind of talk is useful. But it rarely penetrates to the core of the subject or articulates the significant values it embodies. It often lacks a historical dimension and/ or is insufficient in its technical grasp.
Playwriting is a technology. Just as electric lighting or computer projection are technologies, so is the use of the written word as a means of shaping dramatic “moments”.
In the first millennium BCE the ancient Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet, Levantine linear, itself taken from Iron Age Proto-Canaanite. They introduced vowel signs and reversed the flow of inscription, running their sentences – like the one you’re reading now – from left to right.
This reformed approach became the basis for all subsequent European alphabets. The term for the act of writing – γραμμός(in Latin scribio) – expanded to refer to its correlate products. The word “script” retains shades of this complex history, even in the digital era. As if letters had a mysterious agency, like the inventors of runes believed, containing within them the charge of our disruptive imaginations.
David Williamson’s play ‘Soulmates’ which takes a swipe at the entire literary foundation
Socrates thought γραμμός dangerous and argued for its suppression. But by the 5th century BCE writing was a ubiquitous part of Mediterranean life, handy for all sorts of religious, commercial and philosophical purposes (we know Socrates’ opinions because his pupil, Plato, wrote them down).
In Athens it was used to record the work of victors in annual play competitions, that their achievements might be remembered and there would be no dispute about who had won.
Play it again
At what point did the Greeks realise what had been performed once could be performed again? That the technology of playwriting allowed the past to return in sensory immediacy? No doubt there was some sort of proto-drama before this but writing supercharged the art-form with the force of an emergent literary expertise.
Has this innovation ever been surpassed?
Louis Bouwmeester as Oedipus in a Dutch production of Oedipus the King c. 1896.
When we pick up a copy of Medea or Oedipus The King we engage in an act of a time travel that shoots us back to thoughts and feelings first faced 2,500 years ago. Many things about ancient Greece are unknown to us or unintelligible. But when an actor cries out αἰαῖ αἰαῖ, δύστανος ἐγώ (“woe, woe is me, whither am I born?”) history collapses in an ardent transmigration of souls.
The introduction of written language into live performance was more than an addition to its existing skillset of dance, music and the choral ode. It was a radical escalation of its presence and power, forging a new representation of human experience. Theatre became dramatic, even as the written word took on viral life, via the acting conventions that sprang up around the technology of playwriting.
This was not really a shift from an oral to a written culture, since the spoken word was still the focus of the poet’s craft. It was a new balance between elements such that language could be harnessed as a capital resource.
Every time a drama is presented we engage in the same miraculous inter-temporal act.
What was dead lives again, and will continue to live long after we are dead. Every play contains an infinity of response, freed simply by the desire of artists and audiences to engage with it.
In all developed countries today drama is a major mode of expression. On stage and screen, it irradiates our lives with its tropes and techniques. The Greeks infused playwriting with basic parameters. These may not be universal but they are certainly robust.
Not every drama has “a story” in the way Aristotle insisted was needed. All display qualities of narrative tension. Not every drama has “characters” in the classical sense or “dialogue” in a conventional one. All contain points of emotional accrual and communicate using language-like means, be this visual image, acoustic vibration or choreographic gesture.
The technology of playwriting changes not only the formal possibilities of theatre but also its social function.
Theatre goes from “being something”, a social ritual, to “saying something”, a creative act. It becomes an intervention, a source of critical knowledge.
Kill The Messenger
It also becomes a threat. After Euripides wrote The Trojan Women, with its implied criticism of Athenian warmongering, he was exiled to Salamis.
The history of playwriting is punctuated with repression, punishment and overt control by political authorities looking at it with baleful eyes. It is good to remember that stage censorship in Australia stopped only in the 1970s and the laws pertaining to it have never been officially revoked.
In my next article I will look at Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), an American play. After this, I will examine Duncan Graham’s Cut, an Australian play written in 2011. An old play and a new one.
My perspective will be dramaturgical rather than literary. I will look at what makes these plays “work”; or under what circumstances they will “work”.
In my final article, I will take the insights of this comparative exercise into a historical overview of Australian stage drama.
Why do this?
First, because it is always interesting to know how things tick, and plays are more like car engines than one might imagine.
It’s a craft. You learn it. You do it. You learn it some more. Given talent and application, eventually you do it well. But writing drama is a hard road. Even the best playwrights have produced very few masterpieces.
Second, because Australia is a country that has under-achieved in this art form.
Given our wealth, diversity and level of education, we have not produced the substantial body of dramatic work one might expect. Our film industry is sporadic. Our television drama is forever collapsing into soap. Our memorable stage plays are few.
In 1968, the editor of Oz Magazine, Richard Walsh wrote:
If, as we are continually being told, the Muses are currently undergoing a Renaissance in Australia, Drama appears at this stage to be the last of the famous nontuplets to be delivered and with the lowest birthweight.
Despite the achievements of Australian film, television and theatre since the 1960s, Walsh’s words still ring uncomfortably true.
As a dramaturge and director I have been working with playwrights for more than 30 years. I have commissioned and developed drama for both small companies and large, have advised agencies on their support for new plays, and worked with writers of very different stylistic hue.
I add to this a knowledge of past Australian drama drawn from my job as a theatre historian, from examining the plays others artists have chosen to stage.
John McCallum in his wonderful book Belonging: Australian Playwriting in the 20th Century says plays are “the bones and stones of our theatre”. Whether as historical trace, repertoire choice, adaptation object, or aspirational project, the written play is a major component in stage, screen and television drama. I call it “the device that turns information into experience”.
Contemporary Australia needs a better grasp of playwriting so that playwriting can better represent contemporary Australia. Over the next few weeks I hope to show both how this can be done, and why it is so important.