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.

Shunt On


By a random set of coincidences and fortuitious connections made, I ended up on the guest list for the 4th night of Shunt’s new vault experiment on Saturday night. For those not in the know, Shunt are a site-specific London theatre company who over the last ten years have been continually pushing various envelopes with exciting, funny and immersive productions; the venue is a set of disused railway vaults off London Bridge which for the last couple of years have been London’s  absolutely trendiest night out. Much, as I found out talking to some of the crew, to the company’s chagrin; what began as a beautiful venue for live art, combining the social pleasures of a night out with space for innovative performance, turned into a money-grinding meat-market for trendy and wealthy clubbers and pseuds. So when the venue got threatened with closure and then was fortuitously rescued, the company decided to take it back to its low-fi beginnings, aiming for a relax, snug, understated arts space.

Well, I did have a great night, all the better for being free. There were paintings and sculpture, mashed-up film and soundscape works, and contemporary dance and live art — all in a series of atmospheric candlelit caverns. Highlights for me were Larry Marrotta‘s bleached-out and rescored silent films, a heartbreaking dance to experimental double-blass music called Snowflakes on Mars, and a musician who worked wonders with a music box, a violin and a repeater pedal — if anyone knows his name, I’ll give them a kiss.

But a couple of things bothered me. The first was the architecture of the social space. There were lots of interesting rooms, comfy chairs, and strange things to lounge on — but tables were all separated from one another, and dim lighting made it hard to see or recognise people. That design keeps you bound to a small, tight social group and discourages minglings, meetings. There were couples making out in most corners. Why design it like this? If the focus is on the art rather than the club aspect, then I can see the connection, but I don’t think it works. and in an art space I’m expecting to meet interesting people without having to tap randoms on the shoulder. A shame.

Far more serious was the problem with the people. Look, I’m new to London, I don’t really know what’s going on. So when I rolled up to the door at 8.15 to see several hundred people queued in a rammy outside, I was pretty shocked. I didn’t know it was going to be this trendy. Fortunately I was able to breeze past them, waltz up to the door and tell the lone hassled security man that I was on the list. Sweet. But apart from my smugness, there did turn out to be a real issue. Look, I do not have much money, and I care about art. But my God, the expense of some of the clothes and hairstyles and shoes in there. Yes, I’m prejudiced. But there was a definite correlation between the demonstrative wealth of an attendee and the likelihood of them being one of the shouty, shovey tossers who seemed to dominate the space. Real obnoxious London club-goers. People pushing through queues and trying to shout their way into rooms, abusing Shunt volunteers. So the question is, why is such a beautiful space still attracting this crowd? And what do Shunt think about it? Is my prejudice getting the better of me? What are they going to do with their experiment? Where’s it going? How do you shake off the cachet you’ve gained? Do you need to? I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes.