One Down / Politics of Political Theatre



One show down. Last night’s debut of Israel/Palestine went, I felt, very well. With interactive theatre — with any theatre, really, but especially with theatre that relies on audience response at its heart — it never really comes alive until you get an audience in the same room as the performers. And we had a good-sized audience, basically a full house (although numbers are fluid), and a very responsive one. We’d had a chance to test our ideas at our scratch, but this was the real test — what happens when we try with 50 people what we’ve never tried with more than 8? Will they move where we want them? Will they feel what we hope? Will they ask what we’d like? Will they do what we really, really want, which is to react in entirely unexpected ways? And will we be able to respond fluidly, with improvisation, to genuinely take their input into account?

Mostly, it all worked smoothly. A hitch here and there, but nothing major, and each risk we took seemed to pay off. The actors kept the pace rocketing along, and the audience took that desired trajectory from enjoyable participation to serious reflection. But what, really, is the measure of success?

It’s whether or not the audiences felt genuinely informed, empowered and moved. There are three aims I have with this piece: to get some basic information about the crisis across, to encourage people to think about and be involved with the crisis in a genuine way, and to bear witness to death, atrocity and sorrow. So if people tell me afterwards that they want to find out more, or if they cry, or if they engage the performers in an argument about politics, then that’s a success. And they did.

As I left the performance space, I found people having a fascinating argument about the purposes and problems of political theatre. Should it try and get a particular message across? What’s the difference between art and propaganda? What’s the difference between coercion and the emotional manipulation common to all art? Are heartstring-tugging and thought-provoking in opposition? What should theatre do, in politics?

Dan Rebellato asked the same thing in a Guardian article called “Can political theatre change the world?” Like George Hunka in his blog, I rather wonder if he’s not asking the wrong question. I really don’t see my theatre, this piece of theatre, as a major actor in large-scale public discourse and action. And I’m sceptical of whether any theatre could be; as Rebellato admits, theatre plays to small audiences from a restricted range of social backgrounds. I also suspect that the majority of theatre, which only allows freedom in the sphere of thought, and not in movement and suggestion, is restricted in what it can do with audiences: impart new information, at a pinch, and maybe provoke a new thought or two, but certainly not empower, and certainly not involve in genuine debate. So I don’t see how theatre could change the world.

What I do think political theatre can do is be an active participant in the world it finds itself in. That might sound a bit abstract, so I’ll try and explain: in this show, we bring a few dozen people into a room with seven performers, and spend 90 minutes exploring a major political crisis with them. We use our own names, we never pretend that the audience isn’t there, that the performers aren’t performers, and that the space isn’t what it is, even if we occasionally ask the audience to use their imaginations to be transported elsewhere. We are in the room with the audience, and we’re asking the audience to be in the room with us. That means that they’re in the crisis with us, and throughout the performance we’re directly asking them to be involved. We are asking them to act within that world, and so within the politics of the crisis in general. We are working to find a way to use theatre to speak with this small group of people, in this small room, and to act with them. Together, we are changing that world. It’s a sort of “Think Global, Act Local”, I suppose, however problematic that statement is.

So this is an idea for a kind of theatre, a kind of performance technology, which we hope can be spread and used widely. As the manifesto we wrote under What is OST? says, we think that everyone should make theatre. The politics of our political theatre is small-scale, viral, local, interconnected, variable. It’s not big story changing the world, it’s about being together with our communities, working with them, understanding the local performance space. That’s a world I can be part of, not to change from the outside, but to develop, together.

Recent Theatre Rant


I spent a month studying at GITIS in Moscow at the end of last year, which apart from giving me access to an astonishing and foundational theatre culture, gave me a real appetite for Chekhov — undiminished by watching four hour performances, or by achingly boring meandering table rehearsals, or by drowning in Stanislavskian doctrine. So I was pretty excited by the prospect of Filter‘s “ground-breaking” production of Three Sisters at the Lyric. As the programme note argues, 150 years after his birth, Chekhov is ripe for reinvention, for bringing up to date and mercilessly and excitingly mutilating in the way Shakespeare has been for decades.

Sadly, though it’s a good, solid, entertaining, fast-paced &c production, it just isn’t that innovative. It’s in modern dress, sure, and uses modern interpretations of characters. (The blurb and advertising calls this “getting to the essence” of the play — actually it’s just putting characters in a different social context so that they’re more readily understandable to contemporary audiences. So Natasha’s provincial petit-bourgeois is played as an embarrassed country town girl transforming into a ghastly yummy mummy.) There’s a roughly bare stage, and a handful of Brechtian devices. This all works, mostly, and it does help keep the production moving, and keep it interesting. Sadly Filter’s trademark use of sound is mostly an awkward add-on, and some of the “getting to the essence” just becomes Stating The Premise with a hatchet, but it is a good show.

But I want so much more! Is this really what counts for innovation in Chekhov? Tear down that fourth wall. Have characters bouncing around on spacehoppers. Ask the audience what they think. Throw away the script and improvise the whole thing, or have the author come onstage and heckle the actors (actually, I did see that at the Fomenko in Moscow). Ask audience members to roleplay being Natasha to see what it feels like. Do something that isn’t about creating entertaining (thought-provoking if we’re lucky) spectacle. Chekhov can take it! Respect and love the text, yes, but reinvent the form! Contemporary European theatre is laughing at us. Seriously.

I’m not saying we have to go down the route of post-dramatic theatre. Too often that becomes disempowering navel-gazing, the post-modern self deconstructed to the point of total incomprehensibility and social irrelevance. But there are other options. I’ve got myself quite excited about the way of thinking in Interacting Arts magazine (a Swedish publication made five years ago): the manifesto-style call-out for participation in the arts. Empowering, social, entertaining, relevant, important. Open source art: art for everyone, by everyone. They write:

The step from spectator to participant means the democratization of culture, as power over the means of suggestion is then distributed among the many. Participatory arts means that whatever suggestions the participants produce influence what suggestions they recieve, what suggestions other participants recieve, and how these suggestions affect the possibilities of continuing interaction. The framework that diminishes our participation is socially constructed, not dependent on any particular medium. The medium itself rarely limits our opportunities to participate, the understanding of how we are to percieve it does. We could rise up from the spectator seat, climb onto the stage and shout “to be or not to be!” or spray-paint the paintings in an art gallery, but we don’t, because we know our place. We are spectators.

And we do have some of that happening. The best, most innovative and most exciting thing I’ve seen recently was Nic Green’s Trilogy at the BAC. It wasn’t just that the show was a straightforward and active piece of contemporary feminism, happily unabashed at the word “feminist” — because that in itself is very important. It was that the show actively engaged with both the local community (getting 100 local women of all backgrounds and shapes to join in the celebratory nude dance) and the evening’s audience (recruiting the whole crowd for a semi-nude chorus of Jerusalem); it was that the production was an active part of an interactive website and activist social experiment, both an action in its campaign and an encouragement to participate; it was that the performers adopted an honest, simple form of performative direct address that just blazed through post-modern angsts of the performative self with simplicity and judgement; and it was that, though all of these are very new techniques of experimental theatre, and though the content was intellectually and politically challenging, it has been a massive box office  and critical success, both at the Fringe 09 and a mid-length run at the BAC. People bloody loved the show. These techniques are not only worthwhile, not only innovative, but also popular and successful.

So please, let’s bring them into the great texts, and into the new ones, let’s explore them all, let’s redefine theatre. Let’s try and bring not just the content but the form up to date, in relevant and engaging ways. Please.

Arty (Farty) Party

Personal, Theatre

I took myself over to Seven Sisters on Saturday night, negotiating a cunning maze of tube and Overground closures, for a friend’s party. It’d been a while since I was out in London, and I wasn’t sure what I was in for. But I had a great night. It turned out to be a serendipitously-proportioned mix of artists, geeks and queers — a heady combination, one that made for fantastic conversation and unbridled dancing.

I found myself repeatedly saying “I’m a theatre director”. Well, I am. I may only be wee, but I am and I’ve got to say it — part of making it, part of becoming this thing I want to be, is claiming the territory for myself without fear or self-serving shame. So I even started believing it myself. But what I couldn’t believe it there were loads of folks there (and this was a seriously arty party) who seemed genuinely interested in my projects and ideas about theatre — the way I was interested in their post-structuralist gallery show, or their part-satirical political communication product design, or their immersive soundscape generator programming. I started to feel kinda at home — which is a pretty good sign, I guess.

Here’s another thing: over and over again, I would here conversations from all these multi-disciplinary art practitioners, in all their different (multi-)disciplines, talking with fervour about interactivity, audience participation, collaboration, and everything do with taking art out of the self-regarding at into an empowering social sphere. Now I find that exciting. OK, so it’s not a representative sample, birds of a feather &c., but still — I’m encouraged. Some of these ideas are very old even if we don’t recognise them, and some of them are very new, but it all adds up to the same thing: art not just as self-expression, and not even just as essentiasl testimony, but art as a joyous and exciting tool for empowering us, all of us, where “us” really means everyone in any society that has art, to take possession of our many lives and worlds.

I think this year’s shaping up pretty good so far.