Not In Polite Company

There is an old maxim that says you should never discuss religion or politics in polite company. Well today I am going to do both, by sharing a couple of articles that have caught my left-leaning, atheist attention.

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The Vote at The Donmar Warehouse

Firstly politics. Despite the best efforts of the out-going right-wing government in the UK to decimate all things culture by way of spending cuts in the name of austerity, whilst at the same time ringing the death knell of arts education in schools, theatre, by all accounts, would seem to be thriving. As a general election looms in two days time, British theatre is playing its part in the national political debate in a significant way. Written by Andrew Dickson for The GuardianJudi Dench and the anarchists: why British theatre has gone election mad explores the various plays that are placing the politicians under the spotlight and asking difficult questions. It comes as no surprise really given that theatre, by its nature, has a leaning towards the political left. In the article, Dickson talks to David Hare, the grand old statesman of political playwriting, who has spent much of his career exposing the dark underbelly of ‘the establishment’ in his work. Although focussed on Britain, Dickson’s piece is well worth a read, as he links back to the origins of western theatre in the civic ceremonies of 5th Century Athens.

Our theatre has always been a talking shop – and talking is still how we do our politics, especially during election season.

And now religion. Mark Lawson, also writing for The Guardian, has published an article, Dahling, you were divine: religion on the stage which explores why God remains a draw to theatre-goers. Obviously, in a country which still has an established Church, it is not entirely surprising that such representation happens. However, when that religion is in decline, the debate becomes very interesting.

Indira Varma and Ralph Fiennes in George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman

Indira Varma and Ralph Fiennes in George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman

Again I recommend a read of Lawson’s article. He dutifully traces the lineage of religious drama in Britain back to the incorporation of performance into worship which was first recorded at the time when Christianity was only 500 or so years old. Lawson goes on to document how religion was manifest on the english speaking stage in the 20th century, and given the inherent link between church and state (religion and politics, if you will) it is hardly surprising that David Hare also makes an appearance in this article with his seminal work, Racing Demon, which examined religious faith from a sceptical perspective.

I have to say though, when a society examines itself this acutely through its artistic culture, it often means there is something rotten in the state of Denmark.

Heads Up

photo-exhibition01-1A couple of puppet based things to share today. Over the Easter vacation I spent a few days in Taiwan and while I was there I paid a visit to the Taiyuan Asian Puppet Theatre Museum, which is an absolute gem and I thoroughly recommend a visit if you find yourself in Taipei. Spread over four stories of an old colonial merchant’s house, the museum houses a 100 seat puppet theatre and puppet workshop where puppet carver Lai Shi-an plies his craft in front of visitors. However, the exhibit itself is what makes the museum really worth a visit. Beautifully curated from a collection of 10,000 artefacts drawn from right across Asia, it traces the rich history of puppet theatre in the region.

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I also want to share an interesting interview with puppeteer Max Humphries, whose work is largely inspired by Japanese Bunraku. In an article. No strings Attached by Max Dorey 4429097for Exuent, Dorey talks about the anatomy of the puppet, the puppet as actor and the joys of working with no strings attached.

I believe in trying to achieve the best possible mechanisms for a puppets movement and manipulation; finding the line between the needs of the puppet, the puppeteer, the maker and the performance. My ideal would be a theatrical landscape in which the puppet is viewed as actor, without preconceptions

Fascinating, I recommend a read.

Exchanges On Acting

Untitled_FotorOne of things that I enjoy about keeping Theatre Room is the fact that I am constantly surprised by what I stumble upon in my research. There are always things out there that I haven’t seen before and today I want to share a recent find. The Oslo International Acting Festival took place in 2012 and 2013, organised by The Academy of Theatre, Oslo National Academy of The Arts and The Norwegian Actors’ Center, with a view to exploring the nature and future of the art of acting globally. As I write I can’t find any information about whether the festival will continue in the future but the videos (posted on a YouTube channel) from the two festivals so far are a goldmine for theatre students. At the 2012 festival the theme was techniques and methods and explored the work of Constantin Stanislavski, Stanford Meisner, Lee Strasberg, Michael Chekov and Bertolt Brecht amongst others. I’ve posted the discussion about Brechtian technique below:

The 2013 festival had audience as it’s focus, with talks and discussions including one led by The Wooster Group’s Richard Schechner and another by Gisella Mendoza, a South American practitioner of Theatre of The Oppressed, posted below:

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A great and interesting resource.

Bending Light

fe1c42e4531891ca7abef4377b0834bbI have a few things to share today. Firstly, a couple of super things to watch for pure enjoyment and inspiration. I came across the first one on The Creators Project. Written by Jordan Backhus, the article looks at a digital solo performance, Hakanaïcreated by Adrien M / Claire B which combines live video projection mapping, CGI, and sensors which respond to the movements of the performer.  Backhus’ article also contains an interesting interview with the creators about the meeting of art and technology. Take a look at their incredible work below:

The second is from Lemieux Pilon 4D Art, a Montreal based mulit-disciplinary company that also works heavily with technology and projection. One of their latest works is Icarus, which, not surprisingly, is a contemporary take on the ancient myth and explores the complex relationships between fathers and sons.

Lemieux Pilon have a Vimeo channel with many more videos of their extraordinary work.

More Frantic Moves

A week or so ago I shared the video Frantic Assembly Masterclass: Building Blocks for DevisingToday, here is the second one from the company, Learning to Flythis time led by artistic director Scott Graham. Again, an excellent resource which presents a series of exercises and techniques used to create spectacular lifts.

Incidentally, DV8 Physical Theatre have launched a media portal as part of their online offering.  It includes excerpts of their productions as well as what are called instructional videos about the making and rehearsal of their work. There is a charge (by way of becoming a paying DV8 Member) for viewing the majority of the material, which seems a bit of shame given the generosity of other companies when sharing their working process and methodology.

The Road To Nowhere?

Article Lead - narrow67219148141p4kimage.related.articleLeadNarrow.353x0.140qmk.png1426172861354.jpg-300x0Finally for today, a play on tour with a difference. Performances of Origin-Transit-Destination (O-T-Dhas literally taken to the streets of Sydney. Created by Australian Performance Exchange (APE) O-T-D takes its audiences, by bus, on a tour around the city and examines the issues of asylum seekers and refugees arriving in Australia. Variously called an immersive, verbatim or documentary piece (depending on what you read), it has been in development for a number of years and draws upon a wide range of interviews. The process of O-T-D’s creation is fascinating and you can see and read about it here.

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Immigration, asylum and the plight of refugees are hot political issues in Australia, especially under the current right-wing government, which has taken a particularly hard-line in determining who can enter the country. O-T-D even has as one of its stops, the infamous Villawood Immigration Detention Centre which has become a symbol for the harsh, and some say inhuman, treatment meted out to those seeking asylum in the country. One theatre reviewer, Den Doherty for Guardian Australia, had this to say about that particular element of the performance:

At the gates of [the] detention centre, a guard approaches the group and tells them they are not allowed to film or take pictures. He says the asylum seekers held inside “have it better than people outside, they don’t pay tax”. A few take umbrage, and debate his position. He is not part of the performance, but it will be a key memory for some of the audience.

Doherty’s full review, Strangers on a bus: Sydney show gives a seat and voice to asylum seekersmakes for interesting reading, as does Michael Koziol’s piece for the Sydney Morning Herald, Origin-Transit-Destination puts Sydney in the shoes of asylum seekers.

Article Lead - wide67219148141p3timage.related.articleLeadwide.729x410.140qmk.png1426172861354.jpg-620x349On board the buses, which transport the audience around Sydney, refugees share their own stories of persecution, escape, stolen documents and people smugglers.  Of the seven performers (who have all fled either Afghanistan, Iraq or Iran) only two have acting training.

Origin-Transit-Destination is clearly a very sobering evening of theatre.

A Human Earthquake

7e0981b0-3b29-4d4f-851f-5dd61a7bbc32-2060x1236In celebration of his 90th birthday, theatre critic Michael Billington has written Still centre stage at 90: Peter Brook, human earthquake of modern theatre for The Guardian. A super article that looks back at a career that has spanned 70 years, and shows no sign of slowing down.

The record books insist that Peter Brook will be 90 on Saturday. Personally, I find it hard to believe. I last bumped into Brook about 18 months ago at a new play about Kashmir at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs. I casually asked if he was staying in London for long. “Absolutely not,” he said. “I’ve got to be back in Paris to rehearse tomorrow morning.”

There was something in the urgency of his tone that confirmed Brook is a director who lives totally in the present and who regards all theatre as a work-in-progress.

Brook himself hates looking back over his career: not so long ago he told me with horror of a letter he had received from a West End producer asking him to restage his famous white-box 1970 A Midsummer Night’s Dream for a modern audience.

But, even if Brook is immersed in the here-and-now, the rest of us are entitled to put his 70-year-long career in perspective….(continue reading)

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Frantic Moves

A very simple first share today, marking the 300th post on Theatre Room.  The first of two videos from Frantic Assembly about their working and devising methods.  Absolute gold and a great insight into a company widely recognised in their field as makers of innovative collaborative physical theatre. IB Theatre Arts students take note – your CP on a plate.

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I have posted this before, but here is their excellent Frantic Assembly Resource Pack  too.

In Its Blood and Bones

Graeae Theatre Company. "Reasons To Be Cheerful"For me, the power of theatre as a living art form is its ability to hold a mirror up to society, thereby forcing us to question and re-examine the world in which we live – by extension, therefore, theatre is politics. Today I found myself teaching the fundamentals of Brechtian Epic theory (as I do once or twice a year) and I am always energised by the potential and capacity theatre has to bring about change. Theatre is a hugely powerful medium with the ability to make people dig deep and really confront the issues of the moment. Here in Hong Kong during the Occupy protests , it was only a matter of weeks before the first Cantonese language performances hit the stage, questioning the violent and heavy handed reaction of the authorities to what was an essentially peaceful movement.

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However, my reason for this post is to share a truly excellent article written by Charlotte Higgins for The Guardian, Theatre: the nation’s debating chamber which explores what she calls a golden moment for political theatre in the UK. However, it does more than that – it explores its heritage as far back as Shakespeare in the UK and then even further to the birth of western theatre in ancient Greece.

Theatre is politics, in its blood and bones

I urge you to read it. It may be largely UK-centric, but I know it will have resonances for any theatre maker, anywhere.

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.