Lacking Definition

3.190241Like anything else, the academic and theoretical study of theatre-making is always bound by a shared lexicon. However definitions sometimes lead us astray. Take Bertolt Brecht’s concept of Verfremdungseffekt for instance.  When John Willett published his seminal english language Brecht on Theatre in 1964, he translated Verfremdungseffekt as the alienation effect, which for many years led to a mis-interpretation of what Brecht actually meant. Subsequently it has been re-translated as defamiliarization effect, estrangement effect, distantiation or distancing effect, the latter having become generally accepted as nearer Brecht’s original intent. Another would be the definition of the role of the Dramaturge, which differs almost from theatre to theatre, let alone country to country. In this case, it has recently been removed as an area of study from the International Baccalaureate’s Theatre Arts course simply because there is no one internationally accepted standard definition.

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Currently one area of performance that is struggling to find a standard definition is Immersive Theatre, which continues to grow in popularity around the world. In an article for Everything Theatre published a few weeks ago, Marni Appleton asks the question What even is immersive theatre?

Traditional theatre is making room for a different type of performance. More and more often, audiences are invited to throw themselves headfirst into a show rather than simply sit back and watch. But what does this mean? With everything from laptops to restaurants being described as ‘immersive’…… what we should expect from this type of theatre.

Punchdrunk are widely considered to be the pioneers of immersive theatre, having been at it since 2000. There is no such thing as a typical Punchdrunk show; projects range from interactive audio-tours to secret collaborations with musicians, so it is not always easy to identify the common ‘immersive thread’. Their most recent, large-scale UK show, The Drowned Man, was like being inside a dream. The venue started life as an abandoned postal sorting office, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell. The award-winning design transformed the space and no detail was overlooked: drawers were filled; real trees were brought in for the forests; authentic smells and textures were sourced, all of which heightened the senses and gave audience members very surreal experiences. The space could be treated as one giant art installation – it was possible to get a sense of the narrative without crossing paths with a single performer – or you could chase one of the many characters across four floors. The choice was yours. There is so much in a Punchdrunk show that you can never discover everything in a single visit; just one of the reasons Punchdrunk enjoys repeat visitors and dedicated fans, who love the fact there is always something new to be found.

Performances in The Drowned Man were mostly physical, set to an impressive (and loud) cinematic score, so opportunities to converse with the characters were thin on the ground. If you were very lucky, you might be selected for a sought-after ‘one on one’ experience, where a character would draw you into a room and interact with you alone. But aside from this, audience interaction with performers was fairly minimal. There were no opportunities to influence their journeys or the direction of the story; the next scene always continued as scripted.

Does this affect whether or not the show is immersive? David Frias-Robles, co-founder of the theatre company Myriad & Co thinks so. For him, audiences have to be able to change or influence the narrative of the show, for it to be considered immersive. ‘Of course there has to be a basic structure,’ he says. ‘But there also has to be some form of choice for the audience.’

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David has worked extensively in immersive theatre. As well as establishing Myriad & Co, he has worked as actor and director on a range of projects including The Backstage Tour, shows with Secret Cinema and epoch’s The Factory, soon to be seen at VAULT Festival. One of David’s recent projects, Canvas City saw Canvas Bar in Old Street transformed into a 1930s speakeasy. Audience members came to the bar dressed in clothes from the era and were encouraged to adopt their own persona. As the night unfolded, the lines between performer and audience became blurred. There were three crucial, pre-planned moments, but in between those, audience members were able to aid and influence each character’s journey.

The only drinks available on the night were a selection of whisky-based cocktails served in tiny jars. This added to the authentic feel of the night, which was surprisingly effective, considering very little of the bar had been changed. For David, it is these details that are crucial. His idea of an immersive show is one where the audience is in costume, where a narrative has been built up before the performance itself, and where every single detail that might betray the experience as a performance has been eliminated. While this is almost impossible to achieve, the best immersive theatre, he says, comes very close.

Coney is one of the companies producing ‘audience-led’ theatre. Coney’s A Small Town Anywhere and Early Days used the audience as the cast in shows that were part-game, part-improvisation and partly structured. There are a number of experiences that operate in a similar way, such as Heist by differencEngine and the recent New Atlantis by LAStheatre. But if everyone is playing and no one is watching, do these events still count as theatre? And if they are, this begs the question of live action role-play, murder mysteries and other similar games. Do these come under the umbrella of immersive theatre too?

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With audience-led, fully participatory work at one end of the immersive spectrum, there are also supposedly immersive shows that sit right down at the other end of the spectrum. The word ‘immersive’ is often used in relation to shows that simply have non-traditional aspects or some immersive elements. The Roof at the National Theatre was a non-traditional performance staged in a car park, which made clever use of audio by giving each audience member a fancy pair of headphones. However, there was no interaction with the characters and there wasn’t even anywhere to go; viewers simply stood and watched the show instead of sitting down. Whilst this may have been different and exciting for immersive novices, it would have been a disappointment to anyone wanting to get properly stuck in. Many would argue that this was not representative of the genre.

While immersive theatre is difficult to define precisely, it is certainly enjoying a boom at the moment. Is it just a phase? Perhaps. But this writer hopes not. Immersive shows are pushing and breaking down the boundaries of theatre and attracting new audiences – many who aren’t regular theatregoers. As audiences, we should expect the unexpected from this type of show, but what does that mean in practical terms? Great theatre is often risky, and immersive shows are no exception. But throw yourself into the experience, and it might just be a revelation.

In a short, but instructive piece on its website, arts venue The Space in East London, attempted to answer the same question as Appleton:

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Many people go to the theatre to lose themselves in the production, to forget their everyday worries and troubles and be transported into another world. However, no kind of theatre transports an audience quite like immersive theatre. In immersive theatre, the audience are not merely passive bystanders. They are part of the story, however small their role may be, and they are in the middle of the action.

In an immersive theatre production, the audience in some way plays a role, whether that is the role of witness or the role of an actual character. They may be allowed to roam and explore the performance space as the performance happens around them, allowing them to decide what they see and what they skip. They might be herded from room to room so they see the key scenes. They might even be invited to become a more active part of the performance. The lines between performer and audience and between performance and life are blurred. The audience is placed within the environment of the story and therefore play witness front and centre to the events without the distancing factor of a proscenium.

However, this lack of separation can cause anxiety. If an audience member is not expecting to become part of the performance or is uncomfortable with that idea, it can be very off-putting so there must be some form of consent between the performer and the audience. Whether that’s the conscious decision to take a performer’s outstretched hand or knowing that one has the safety net of being able to back away from the performance, there must still exist some form of separation and boundaries between performance and audience for the benefit of everyone involved.

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The origins of immersive theatre go all the way back to the beginnings of modern theatre in the 19th century. Call-and-response, when a leader puts out a call and an audience calls back a pre-ordained response, has long been a concept in music, adding a participatory element. In the centuries that followed, things like murder mystery theatres and haunted houses also put their intended audience into an environment and allowed them choice in how they viewed the story. Even traditional proscenium theatre started to adapt some immersive or interactive elements. In 1985, the Tony Award-winning Best Musical, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, required that the audience vote on who killed the titular character, spurring one of seven possible endings.

Well-known UK-based theatre company Punchdrunk are known as pioneers of the form of immersive theatre. While they have been producing immersive and promenade theatre since 2000 in the UK, they and immersive theatre as a genre meteorically shot to worldwide fame after Sleep No More, their 1930’s film noir adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, was unanimously well-received in New York.

Since the success of Sleep No More, countless immersive productions have popped up on both sides of the Atlantic. In New York, these include Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, a techno-rock musical adaptation of a chunk of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and Then She Fell, an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland set in a mental hospital. London’s immersive theatre scene has recently featured an all-night production of Macbeth in a block of flats; Leviathan, a production of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick in which the audience stands in for the crew of the ship chasing after the famed whale; and The Drowned Man, a combination of Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck and Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust set in a 1960’s movie studio and produced by Punchdrunk.

No doubt the debate will continue long and loud as the form evolves.

The Last Great Titan

ARTHUR MILLEROne of my absolute favourite playwrights is Arthur Miller. I think I have might have seen more productions of his plays than I have any other single writer – including Shakespeare. He created fully conceived, living, flawed characters who inhabit the stage. A Pulitzer Prize winner for perhaps his most famous work Death of a Salesman, he is amongst the most celebrated playwrights of the twentieth century.

To quote the National Endowment for the Humanities,

For nearly six decades, Miller [created] characters that wrestled with power conflicts, personal and social responsibility, the repercussions of past actions, and the twin poles of guilt and hope. In his writing and in his role in public life, Miller [articulated] his profound political and moral convictions. He once said he thought theater could “change the world.”

It has been said that together with A View from the Bridge and Death of a Salesman, All My Sons established Miller as Ibsen’s dramatic heir.  This obituary from the BBC following his death in 2005, goes as far as saying that as a tragedian, his plays will stand alongside the masterpieces of not only Ibsen, but Shakespeare and Sophocles too.

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So why am a drawn to writing about him today? Well, as A View From the Bridge (above) transfers into the West End in London (also being broadcast to cinemas worldwide later in the month) and a new production of Death of a Salesman  to be staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company later in the year, Miller’s plays continue to demonstrate their enduring popularity – for audiences, actors and directors alike.

f2d11603538bbe93d0be50675361f8572015 marks the ten years since his death as well as the centenary of his birth, hence the new productions  – and this is in the UK alone. There have also a been a number of articles published in the last few weeks. From its archive, dating back to 1998, The Guardian shares an interview with Miller, View from the Barricades. It is a wide-ranging piece and makes a really interesting read. The Telegraph in the UK published another, Arthur Miller in his own words: from McCarthyism to Marilyn Monroe which brings together a series of quotations from the man across his career and life.  However, the best and most interesting I have read so far (also from The Guardian) is The economics of Arthur Miller: salesmen, dockers and gilded preachers. It takes a long view of Miller’s plays and explores the role of money as part of the American Dream so vividly captured and painfully explored in much of his great work.

For me though, his appeal goes beyond his genius as a playwright. He was a vocal advocate for human rights and equality and was never afraid to speak out. He challenged the status quo and the establishment almost to the day he died. One of his last public speaking events was to give the Jefferson Lecture in 2001, entitled On Politics and the Art of Acting, bringing together his two great passions.

To end, an excerpt from an interview with Charlie Rose, in which Miller was asked the question, what distinguishes a great playwright?

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A Collective Visionary

croppedimage254254-1927-The-Animals-and-Children-took-to-the-streets-Nick-FlintoffOne of the most innovative and ground-breaking companies I have had the pleasure of seeing in the last few years is 1927. A UK based company, with a global touring reputation, their work is a combination of animation, live performance, theatre and music. They performed in the Hong Kong Arts Festival two years ago, on a tour supported by the British Council,  playing to sold out houses with their piece, Animals And Children Took To The Streets. The fusing of live performance and animation is highly original and they do it to great effect. Their new show, Golum, is currently playing in London and again has been enthusiastically received by audiences and critics alike. Following this run, having had it’s premier in Austria at the Salzburg Festival, they are of to Taipei and then Paris.

The reason I mention them today is that I have just listened to an interview with one of the company’s founders, Suzanne Andrade, on Theatre Voice and would recommend it to any theatre maker, but especially to those working in collaborative creation.

You really don’t need to have seen Golum to understand the interview as the focus is really about the truly collaborative process that the company uses to create new work.  In fact I would go as far as using the word inspirational to describe what they do.

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There are also a couple of super articles about their work here and here, both well worth a read.

All Mouth

As the Hong Kong International Arts Festival kicks off this week with a trilogy of Samuel Beckett plays in the shape of Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby I thought I would share an interview with celebrated British actress Juliet Stevenson about her current role of Winnie in one of Beckett’s more accessible plays, Happy Days. Stevenson was interviewed by Heather Neill for Theatre Voice in January this year.

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This particular show is a revival of a critically acclaimed production for Stevenson, as these reviews are testament to in The Telegraph and The Guardian. She has spoken extensively about playing Winnie and getting to grips with Beckett, one of them being an interview with Paul Taylor in The Independent.  The productions of Happy days and Not I/Footfalls/Rockaby have brought about a rash of writing in the UK with regard to Becket and his work. One of them, Up to their necks: The singular joys of appearing in Samuel Beckettwritten by Holly Williams for The Independent is great read, as is What lies beneath Samuel Beckett’s half-buried woman in Happy Days written by Beckett’s biographer, James Knowlson for The Guardian. Natalie Abrahami, director of Happy Days, spoke in January to the BBC Radio 4 programme Start The Week. This is the excerpt from that programme that carries her interview as part of a panel discussion about memory:

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The production of Not I/Footfalls/Rockaby which we will have the joy of seeing here this week, is the original London production starring Lisa Dwan, on its way from playing internationally in New York and Perth.

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Again, the reviews have been universally superb; The New York Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian and The Independent all throw superlatives at the production and Lisa Dwan in particular. Dwan wrote a piece published in The Guardian Beckett’s Not I: how I became the ultimate motormouth in which, not surprisingly, she talks about playing ‘the mouth’. You can see an excerpt of her in action here

One review spoke of the piece as being a ….deeply sobering and equally intoxicating experience…[and a] harrowing and beautiful production.  I can’t wait.

Endangered Species?

downloadContinuing from the previous post, I wanted to share the final article mentioned, written by Lyn Gardner in her Theatre Blog for The Guardian,  Is the playwright dead? Most of the theatre my students make is collaborative and new, applying and testing the creative skills and performance theory they have learned. However, they are also empowered by interpreting a written text and are challenged by that process in equal measure. As always, I find myself agreeing with Gardner. I have left her original links in the article as they lead to further interesting reading.

Is there an anti-writer trend in British theatre? Only if you insist on a very narrow definition of what constitutes new writing and fail to cherish playwriting in all its rich variety

“There has been a shift of opinion against playwriting, in favour of collective methods of theatre. The very activity of playwriting has been attacked as individualistic, undemocratic and even immoral,” declared playwright David Edgar when it was announced that he would be this year’s visiting professor in drama studies at Oxford and giving lectures and hosting discussions in February.

Blimey! Edgar talks of an “anti-writer trend”. That sounds serious and worrying. I’d like to think that he was being a little tongue in cheek because, after all, he also pointed out that “for the first time in at least 100 years, new work has overtaken the old work in the repertoire”, which can surely only be a good thing for writers of all kinds. Then there’s the roll call of people he’s invited to take part in discussions over the week, who include, among others, Bryony Lavery, David Greig and Chris Goode, who definitely all write plays but who often also create work in many different ways via collaboration, and for whom text plays distinct roles in different contexts.

When I was talking to Scott Graham of Frantic Assembly recently, he talked eloquently about working with Bryony Lavery on Stockholm and how she expressed the wish to write silence, condensing a scene to the point where “words were redundant”. That’s still very much writing in my book, and I bet most other people’s, too.

Frantic Assembly

Frantic Assembly

But even if what Edgar is saying is just a provocation, I’m really not sure that talking about an “anti-writer trend” is either true or helpful. After all, the adaptations of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or Let the Right One In are still distinctly scripted plays however many other tools have been utilised to make them. And why wouldn’t all theatre-makers – and that includes playwrights – use all the tools available to them that they find helpful for a particular piece of work? The danger is that Edgar’s statement sets up the idea that different kinds of theatre are in opposition to each other, and that the individual playwright must be at odds and in competition with those making work collectively or collaboratively or using other kinds of theatrical languages.

It’s not a case that one kind of theatre-making invalidates another or steals money and resources away from others. There is room for all comers and different ways of working because different is good and invigorating – and variety adds to the richness of our theatre culture. What suits some as a way of working will not necessarily suit others or perhaps only at particular points in their career for particular projects. Bryony Lavery can work fruitfully with Frantic Assembly and write plays entirely on her own, too. Doing one doesn’t mean you can’t do the other.

David Tennant, Hamlet

David Tennant, Hamlet

Does the fact that we have a variety of methods of working mean that the individual playwright with a singular vision is an endangered species? Of course not. You only have to look at the programmes of our new writing theatres to see that’s not the case. The fact that……. theatres across the country may also programme other kinds of work, some of it made collaboratively, simply reflects the fact that most of those now directly involved in new writing understand that what is needed is a far wider and looser definition around what we mean by new writing. That doesn’t threaten the playwright; it potentially liberates and provides more opportunities.

David Edgar’s week of lectures and discussions do sound fascinating – you can read the programme and participants here. They will all be published online so watch this space.

Is The Playwright Dead?

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Vanessa Redgrave

Today, I have stumbled across an astonishingly fascinating series of video recordings and I am compelled to share them straight away. They come from Humanitas, a series of Visiting Professorships at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge which brings together leading practitioners and scholars to explore major themes in the arts, social sciences and humanities. In one of the strands, Drama Studies, the visiting professors so far have been actor Vanessa Redgrave, director Greg Doran, playwright Athol Fugard and will be joined this year by another playwright, David Edgar. All of them are giants in their respective fields. Fugard speaks in three videos; firstly about the defining moments in his life and work, then about staging his plays and finally about his playwrighting process. In his first video Doran gives a practical masterclass looking at what clues Shakespeare puts into the verse for the actor and in the second, another, masterclass, this time on how Shakespeare spins rhetoric for the actor. However, my favorite, are the series given by Redgrave, doyen of the theatre on both sides of the Atlantic as well as prominent social activist. Click on the image below to take you to the first of a series of four lectures and panel discussions, entitled, not surprisingly, Theatre and Politics.

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The 2015 series, with David Edgar, promises to be equally interesting and provocative as he explores contemporary playwrighting from a number of perspectives. In an article in The Guardian born out of his appointment as Humanitas Visiting Professor, entitled Is the playwright dead?, he is quoted talking about the anti-writer trend that he considers to be prevalent in current collaborative theatre making. This notion will form the basis for his first lecture and the article itself, my next blog post.

Moving On

NT DiscoverSo the first post of 2015 is a an easy one. A few weeks ago I shared a video about creating modern interpretations of Greek Chorus, made by the National Theatre in the UK (Group Chat). Since then they have released 3 more videos about various aspects of creating chorus as part of their Discover National Theatre strand:

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Also part of Discover is the series of videos about Movement Direction, which are also a great little watch:

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All short, but perfectly formed and super starting resources.

Say It As It Is

little-revolution-posterTwo audio recording shares today. Firstly an interview, courtesy of Theatre Voice, by theatre critic Matt Trueman with verbatim playwright Alecky Blythe (and director Joe Hill-Gibbon) about her play Little Revolution. Performed earlier this year and receiving very polarised reviews, it explores the 2011 London riots. The interview gives a fascinating insight into the processes of writing and staging verbatim theatre. Blythe also writes about her approaches in The Telegraph, It looked a bit hairy. But I had to go. Interestingly, the same newspaper also gave Little Revolution one of it’s best reviews, calling it Absolutely Compelling. Truman’s own review of the play is a little more interrogating.

The second share, and not wholly unconnected,  is an interview with writer and theatre maker Stella Duffy (and others) about the life of theatrical maverick Joan Littlewood, whose centenary has been marked this year by many events, not least the Fun Palace initiative, started by Duffy herself. Again a great listen about a woman who made theatre differently.

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Green Stages

Royal Court Theatre, 2004Today, I want to share a thought-provoking video. It is a panel discussion from the Royal Court Theatre in London entitled Can Theatre Ever Be Green. Part of a larger Day of Action on climate change, the theatre’s spaces, including the stage, the bar and the bookshop, were taken over by climatologists, environmentalists and other experts exploring how we might fight climate change as artists, audiences and human beings. This is connected with the performance of 2071 which I wrote about in my recent post Willing To Speak Truth To Power. In the discussion, the panel analyse the responsibility to climate change in their work and discuss more environmentally friendly ways of producing theatre.

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The speakers are Natalie Abrahami (Theatre Director), Natasha Chivers (Lighting Designer), Alison Tickell (CEO, Julie’s Bicycle) Ben Todd (Executive Director, Arcola Theatre) and Paul Handley (Production Manager, Chair).

Give it a view. As theatre makers, it will really make you think.

Body Mechanics

I wanted to share a short video today, an excerpt taken from a piece called Nowhere  by Greek experimental theatre director, choreographer and visual artist Dimitris Papaioannou, (who incidentally was the creative director for the Athens Olympics in 2004). Nowhere is dedicated to Pina Bausch and was created to inaugurate the new main stage at the Greek National Theatre.

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To quote the theatre’s website:

Nowhere is a work about the physical space of the theatrical stage. Constantly changing and defined by the men and women that inhabit it, it can be countless different places while designed to be nowhere at all.

The scene I’m sharing contains nudity, so be warned, but the reason it caught my attention will be obvious when you watch it.  Simply stunning.

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Known as the body mechanic system, it was used by Akram Khan in his piece Dust, part of a large work called Lest We Forget for the English National Ballet. Khan credited Papaioannou in the programme for the idea:

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I have a feeling it might be making an appearance in some of my students’ work, minus the nudity I hope, given their reaction to it.