Interactive Theatre: Why, How, &c.

Politics, Rambles, Theatre

I say I specialise in interactive theatre. That means a whole range of stuff, but at the core of it it means I get excited when audiences get up on the stage. I think there’s something genuinely revolutionary about it. I ended up doing interactive theatre largely because of my involvement in contemporary social movements, and in the end I couldn’t help applying the same radical analysis to theatre that I was applying to politics. If I was demanding that politics be participatory, non-hierarchical, ecological, how could I not demand the same of theatre? If I thought that the answers to capitalism lay in creating autonomous spaces, how could I not want to create them in theatre buildings? Arguments by analogy have never been particular sound, but they can take us some interesting places. Still, I’ve found it hard to make the full rational argument for the theatre that I make. Instead, I wave lyrically in its direction. When trying to write a manifesto I came up with:

Open Source Theatre is the idea that anyone can make theatre.
Open Source Theatre
is the idea that everyone should make theatre.
Open Source Theatre takes audiences seriously. We make theatre with them.
Open Source Theatre thinks that everyone who participates in making theatre, including “audiences”, should feel empowered.
Open Source Theatre says that the theatre space is a personal space.
Open Source Theatre says that the revolutionary space is a theatre space.
Open Source Theatre wonders if the technologies of our immensely privileged Information-based societies might be able to make the above statements true.

I’ve been reading Darren O’Donnell’s “Social Acupuncture“, a messy but stimulating book about theatre and politics. (You can get a full .pdf from Mammalian Diving Reflex here.) Bits of it got my back up, bits of it I found tiresome, but big chunks had me punching the air. Yes! I’d say. That’s what I meant! That’s how I feel! O’Donnell has an exciting clarity of style, and a real knack for linking the socioeconomic to the psychological. The book’s like a theatrical “Anti-Oedipus“, but much less obscure. And this post is really just an excuse to post a couple of those light-filled passages.

Here’s him diagnosing the artistic problem:

The classical canon and traditional approaches to representation still hold the theatrical imagination captive. Most theatre still hasn’t managed to dispense with coherent, pithy and supposedly interesting characters whose lives occur incident by incident. Presenting false possibilities of selfknowing – even among nominally postmodern dramatists – still dominates: characters’ lives are summed up, they understand their various shortcomings and blind spots, and they’re offered some sort of redemption, whether or not they choose to take it. And if they don’t, then, at the very least, the audience is offered that possibility. Representational work – work that derives its meaning from the portrayal of other people in other places doing other things – still dominates, imposing its inherent limitations around the construction of transparent subjectivities and the illusory possibility of an objective position from which observation can occur. It also brings along its tyrannical emphasis on narrative; it’s a dramaturgical cliché that the fundamental component of theatre is story and storytelling.

While stories may be one way to get the job done, they’re not the only way; stories are simply one tool among many. What theatre is really about – like any other form – is generating affect, and that’s it. Feelings. And, if things go well, quickly following feelings will be thoughts. Stories certainly can do this, but they’re not the only thing to do it, and they’re no longer always the best way to do it. Yet representational narrative continues to dominate, keeping the experience sheltered from the possibility of a direct encounter between audience and artist, between bodies in the same room at the same time.

But he’s equally clear in his diagnosis of the difficulties with the participatory solution. Folk who’ve been to my shows will know that they’re in parts messy and awkward. I put considerable effort into making informal spaces full of possibility, in creating dramatic moments which one night will carry us all away and which the next will putter out entirely. I’ve previously put this down to experimental risk. But maybe it’s inherent to the form:

The innocent gestures of the spontaneous will always tell us complex and politically charged things about this very moment, giving theatre artists the opportunity to find rigorous ways to generate and frame it. That’s the challenge, with theatre’s addiction to a very particular understanding of a rigidly rehearsed virtuosity standing in its way. It’s easy with film and tv – you just edit out the dull shit, focusing on the telling spontaneous moments. This is not so easy when the interactions are live, and particularly so if they involve audience interaction. There will always be annoying fumbles and distractions, and a final product that doesn’t have the same concision that editing allows.

The path to a rigorous participatory theatre is fraught with dorkiness, earnestness, amateurism, social work and therapy. It’s a minefield. And no one can be blamed for feeling squeamish or repulsed by the notion. We like our work rehearsed and we like it well rehearsed, like a nice charbroiled steak from Denny’s. The question for the theatre artist anxious to break with debilitating habits of the past is how to create thoughtful, rigorous work while allowing for the unknown, the unexpected and the awkward – how to find meaning in qualities other than virtuosity and razzle-dazzle.

That argument is the artistic and psychosocial rationale for the theatre I’m trying to make. You’ll need to read the rest of the book – or go to one of his projects? or, better still, one of mine? – to talk more about how that ties into the political. But, briefly:

Representation and narrative will always be comfortable and tyrannical. No matter how deconstructed, the artist will always be telling you a neat story about how the world is. If that story is political, they will always be presenting a platform, making an argument, raising awareness? – representational theatre can’t help but be so liberal. The most radical thing a politician can do is get down from the podium and invite a bunch of other people to speak. The most radical thing a theatre-maker can do is as the audience to invade the stage space and make their own contributions from it. This will always be aesthetically uncertain and awkward. Anything aesthetically fixed and polished can only communicate a message: to have a conversation, you have to disrupt the aesthetic calm you’ve created. And that will lead to far greater artistic magic.

Israel/Palestine: What do we do now?

Personal, Theatre

(Words of explanation: in April, I directed an interactive theatre project about the Middle East conflict which toured the UK; I’ve also been a Palestinian solidarity activist for the past couple years, although that theatre project spoke/questioned from a more neutral, explorative position.)

Directing Israel/Palestine gave me a deeper insight into the Middle East conflict than I’d had in years of working as an activist: I began to be able to grasp the conflicting narratives and gain an understanding of why things are as they are; it even helped me think more and better about how I and we (my social group? my actors? my country? my society?) could positively act. That’s also what I hoped our audiences gained: if nothing else, then a better understanding, and a more focussed attention on the issue — a willingness to understand, a desire to be involved.

But one of the anxieties of live performance is that it’s quite difficult to keep track of what happens to your audiences afterwards. Immediately following the show they can let you know how moved they are, how much they want to engage better with issues — but what about days after? Weeks after? Months after? I was thinking this a lot as yesterday’s terrible news unfolded; these were my first reactions:

@HarryGiles:

Whenever Israel/Palestine news breaks, I look at my theatre project and think: what did we achieve? Do our audiences now pay more attention?

Of the 200 people who came along, are they really now more empowered to engage with events? Do they care more? Do they ask more questions?

And what about me?… faced with the appalling news of the #FreedomFlotilla attack, do I react differently? Can/will I do more than tweet?

A good friend of mine replied “the ramifications of discussion are not a precise science. It is not a chess game, it is a gesture of hope.” That’s encouraging and partly true, but a part of me still wants to know whether or not my work as an artist-activist is effective, offers practical results.

On another level, I started thinking about the new perspective on the conflict the project had enabled me to have. More than anything else, I now see the war as a war of competing narratives: so much of the work we did involved discovering why people thought as they thought and delivering their own versions of events. We’re dealing here with sides who have competing historical understandings, competing visions for the future, and for every new series of events there is a new narrative division. As news breaks, every news source suffers (often justly) accusations of bias from both sides — every word is loaded with meaning, every reader extra-sensitive. It’s never clearer that there is no such thing as an objective fact. Understanding what happened becomes difficult, and so everyone resorts to their knee-jerk reactions, siding with one narrative or another — because it becomes more or less impossible to do anything else. Here’s what I wrote about these thoughts:

Hashtag lines drawn: #terroristflotilla vs #freedomflotilla . Twitter’s cardinal virtue/vice: brevity makes ideological division so clear.

That Israeli/Palestinian narratives r mutually incompatible & antipathy utterly entrenched never clearer than in responses 2 Gaza flotilla

Follow the war/crisis on Twitter and understand that it is overarchingly a battle for historical narrative.

Territory, faith, revenge, fear, security, cultural imperialism/defence: yes, all of these. But the ends and means are narrative and history

And, of course, historical narrative is here, as ever, delivered through the barrel of a gun.

See, I do take a side, but I take it now with rather more understanding of what the other side is experiencing. When I read a site like Mere Rhetoric, which spins every news item on Israel/Palestine firmly and vitriolically in one direction, I no longer react with disgust and anger — instead, I appreciate the insight into the other side’s mind.

And yet, I do take a side, I can’t maintain neutrality out of the theatre space, and so what am I supposed to do with this knowledge? Ineffectually plead for an end to mutual antipathy and a beginning for understanding? I mean, this isn’t just an argument, these are two narratives fighting for their very existence — for life. Do I want to see the triumph of one? The resolution of both? I don’t really know. I understand more now, but I’m more lost.

I’d greatly appreciate the thoughts of anyone who came to the show.

Parting With Such Tweet Sorrow

Theatre

In case you missed the fanfares, trumpets and bemused press, Such Tweet Sorrow was a “live” improvised of Romeo and Juliet. Via Twitter.

That’s the sort of thing that gets me very excited. I’m enthralled by any attempt to extend the boundaries of performance to the digital and informational — recognising that the internet is now a platform not only for information sharing and art distribution but also for performance itself. The dominant form of internet performance so far has been the commercial advertising use of alternate reality games, but there have been  projects like the famous lonelygirl15, and the rise of the artistic or plot-drive indie arg, specifically fuelled by the growth of online arg communities. I’m talking here specifically about online performances — artwork with a live or real-time component — rather than simply internet-based art, though that too also offers extraordinary potential. (For many years my favourite site on the internet has been Nobody Here; We Feel Fine crosses the boundary between found art and performance by an artificial intelligence.) So a well-funded, well-promoted experiment in performing Shakespeare online got me all excited.

Frustratingly, critical comment on the project — a genuine reflective appreciation of it — has been really limited. Googling for reviews, I can mainly only find the British press’s initial reaction to the project — a predictable mixture of redrafting the press releases, knee-jerk complaints from stuffy fuddy-duddies, and bright-eyed lauding from trendy new arts types. There have been a few insightful (and mainly critical) reviews from various arts sites and bloggers, but no widespread critical engagement. Which is a real shame, because as an early experiment in a new medium, there’s a great deal to learn from the project.

I followed it religiously, and loved every moment, while still thinking it could’ve been a helluva lot better. I loved the playful reinterpretations of key moments of the play — Romeo met Rosaline playing Call of Duty online; Juliet’s 16th birthday party had a Facebook event and a Spotify playlist; Mercutio met his end at a football riot. It was at its best when it spread its wings across the internet — when videos, photos, audioboos and blogs were combining to give a multi-perspectival picture of events — and at its most touching when events were obliquely inferred rather than turgidly typed (Mercutio’s death scene, alone in hospital, was exquisite).

Those reviews I linked to are a mixed bag of criticism (Hannah Nicklin’s to my mind is the most in depth and insightful) and divide mainly into two camps: those who think the medium doomed the project to failure, and those who longed for it to be better to really do the most the medium could offer. To my mind, those in the former camp were mostly cynical about the possibilities of the medium to start with, and not au fait enough with the grammar of its performance; the most irritating criticism was of a lack of verisimilitude — as if actors playing on a stage have anything but the most passing resemblance to reality! Those in the latter camp point out the project’s genuine flaws — the acting and writing veered all over the place in terms of quality; the production had a tendency to try and be cool in the way your brash uncle does, not quite getting it; the ARG elements were mostly a thin veneer rather than a deep world; the characters were kind of irritating — while recognising that this is an early experiment in a young medium, that it has made discoveries, that the next such project will be much better, and the next, and the next.

So my message to the creators: don’t be disheartened. I’m a little sad there hasn’t been a massive online celebration, an after-party to celebrate the close of the play, and I rather fear that maybe those involved think it’s failed because of the lack of critical applause. If it failed, it was a glorious failure! — and we can look at what did succeed. Hundreds of followers were engaged and enjoyed themselves, a medium was explored and brought to wider attention, there were some damn good jokes. So — where next? and what does this mean for groups like mine, looking to expand the digital to the stage and the stage to the digital, looking to genuinely bring audiences into performances? Can we expect more well-funded experiments from British institutions? Will we plunge on through sea of myopic naysayers? Or will experiments fizzle out, too worried to push things further on, to real success? We’l see.