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.

HAGGLE: first day reflections

Theatre

So this all happened pretty quickly.

Last week I decided that, given that I might be moving pretty soon, I had way too much stuff in my life. I also had way too much debt. And maybe because of the work on STEAL THIS PLAY and the resultant obsession with property and theft, and maybe because of this episode of This American Life which fascinatingly exposed the role of haggling in the retail economy, I thought it might be a good idea to make a haggling performance out of the process of dematerialisation.

So HAGGLE happened: an interactive performance / fire dale. The initial performance was deliberately unprepared and spontaneous: I decided to set up a stall in public, packed with books, music, DVDs, clothes and oddities, along with a (half-ironic) catalogue of performances that were also for sale (including poems, songs, hugs, arguments and apologies), a sign which said HAGGLE, and waited to see what happened.

Of course, the performance turned out not only to be lucrative but also to be incredibly fruitful. It was a success, and I’ll be repeating it several times over the next few weeks to see how it develops. Some vital statistics and notes follow; I’ll provide these after each performance, so that you can see how the performances develop, and compile them into a performance report at the end of the month. Keep checking the Open Source Theatre site for updates, as I won’t post them all here.

Vital Statistics

  • Performance time: 150 mins
  • Number of performers: 1
  • Number of audience members: 35 participants (approx.), 50 voyeurs (approx.)
  • Items sold: Graphic novels, play texts, CDs, a ukulele, clothes, arguments, a poetry performance, books, a directing session
  • Clashes with the authorities: 0
  • Money earned: £74.37
  • Student debt offset: 0.007%

Significant moments

As I initially laid out my stall, there was immediately a twenty minute long rammy to buy things. This took me rather buy surprise: there was sudden and large-scale enthusiasm to just buy my shit. I barely had any time to explain the premise of the performance; it just happened. I never achieved the same critical mass of audience members, though the flow remained steady. I am glad it started as something which just happened, with energy, rather than as a laboured event — it enriched the whole experience for me, gave it a reality.

It was difficult to get people to pay for performances. While I was able to use offering “apologies, hugs, arguments, adoring glances” as a hook that took people by surprise and brought them over to the performance, only two audience members paid me for performances rather than material objects. (Except that, of course, because every object was haggled for, every object came with its own performance: was part of a performance process.) Each of these, however, was enthralled and entertained by the idea: the one who paid be for arguments kept coming back for me, enjoying the idea of an argument as a purchasable performance.

I became a capitalist. I began to understand the draw of retail, the pleasure in converting material to lucre. I also felt liberated as the physical and performative elements of my life became the possibility and potentiality of cash. There was nothing radical or political about what I was doing (the ironies only supplied a distance from the cruel realities of capitalism, rather than criticising them): it was pure money-making.

I didn’t successfully explore the meaning of haggling and the exchange relationship with enough audience members. How can I introduce this philosophical and conversational element?

One older audience member offered to give me more than the RRP for a book, “in order to see how my guilt would react”. Intoxicated by lucre, my guilt vanished at the sight of a ten pound note. Only later did I have qualms about accepting this. But not very strong ones.

How does what I’m doing relate to the realities of haggling? For me, I don’t have as much of a stake in the specific price I offer as a professional haggler: I need the most I can get for any item, but there is no fixed relationship here to my debt. I thus go lower than a market stall owner would; there is less urgency about what I’m doing. I am a dilettante haggler. How can I insert a greater element of desperate reality to what I’m doing? Through the way I perform, or my internal attitude to the performance?

How will this performance change as the returns get lower, the hours get longer, the stuff gets tackier and cheaper? I imagine it will get less exhilarating and more depressing. Or will it get more liberating as I shed my material skins? Will I have the willpower to push it to its conclusion? And, as one friend commented on my initial announcement, what is the morality of dematerialising myself by burdening others? — relieving them of cash only to increase their weight in life?

On Returning

Theatre, Uncategorized

(Less frequent and more theatre-centric blogging due to having been on tour the past week, and preparing the three weeks before that. Back now. Reflecting. Interests diverging again. Wrote this cheesy post for the Open Source Theatre blog:)

We’ve returned from the Israel/Palestine tour: four cities, five performances, nearly 200 audience members, almost £150 raised, and a great deal of intense, exciting and worthwhile performance interactions.

It’s been an exceptional month. In one sense, time goes incredibly fast; it seems strange that as little as two weeks ago we didn’t really know what we were going to be performing. When the creative work is carrying you along, you don’t notice time passing. In another sense, time has been stretched out, because the work is so packed, the moments so full. And when you’re working on a tight schedule, you have to make those moments count. There’s a similar feeling in our performances: they’re only 90 minutes, and, while we’re pretty confident the audiences don’t get bored, it feels simultaneously that so much time cannot possibly have passed and that the moments have been incredibly full. That’s the kind of performance we’re aiming for, at least.

It’s at this point that two things happen, as a director: taking stock and finding space. When a project concludes, something which has taken up every waking moment for weeks, so that even when you’re not working on it you’re thinking about it, there is an enormous space inside you that needs filling up. You try and have lie-ins. You catch up on Twitter and books. You trawl the artsjobs listings. Or, if you’re me, you start compiling performance reports, trying to capture the magic, relive it. This taking stock is a part of my process as a director and human, and part of the whole OST concept: documentation as open source theatrical process. But it helps be cope with the absence, too.

The great thing is, it’s not the end. We began this project not knowing where we’d reach, what performances we’d actually be giving in those five cities, and leaving the future open. But we think this project has been a success, and our time together has been extraordinarily productive, and so we want to take it further. This is always a risky set of feelings: the desire not to let go of a project which has run its course can be crippling. But for this one, there’s a sense of work left on done — we think it deserves development, expansion and wider audiences. We think it has mileage. We don’t want to make the same thing happen again: we want to take it further.

So on that note, I’ll finish this post on this too-infrequent blog (the desire to document every moment is strong, but time is so short!), because there’s a lot of work to be done. Planning. Sketching. Finding venues, funding, dates. Dreaming.