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.

Why We Perform Words

Poetry, Rambles

I went to see Peter Arnott’s scratch of Talent Night in the Fly Room (which was an open-hearted blast, by the way, and I’m really looking forward to the finished thing), and something he said at the beginning struck me:

Working with actors is like doing it in laboratory conditions — it tests writing in a real-world way. People say “That’s not funny” and you say . . . “You’re right. It isn’t.”

That’s pretty much how I feel about performing poetry. Performing a poem to an audience is an essential part of the creative process for me. How can I know the words are right until the audience has reacted to them? Why on earth would I trade this for the trickle of response from readers when a piece is publishd? Why would I ask for critical commentary from trusted readers and not from trusted listeners? Why would you?

And if you don’t think your poem is auditory, why do you use alliteration, assonance, rhythm, rhyme? Why do your poems have shape? Do you really not sound them at least in your mind? Do you not roll the words around your mouth? So why don’t you perform them? It will test them in a real-world way.

Performance, Politics, Art, Dialogue and Twitter

Politics, Rambles, Theatre

This is a short reflection on publishing the #GiveUpArt Twitter essay as part of the #SOTAflash conference, which ran alongside State of the Arts 2011. I reduced an essay (forthcoming in an Arts-Activism reader from Silent City) to forty 120-character tweets, which I scheduled at three-minute intervals between 11.30 and 1.30 on the day of the conference. My original thought was that this would be a sort of “essay as event” intervention into #SOTAflash and SOTA itself. As it happened, expanded far beyond that to become something else: thanks to the people who were taking part, something more interesting.

I had originally planned not to do anything on Twitter while the essay was being published, but I began to receive so many replies, objections, engagements and arguments – and began to see so many other interesting things to talk about in the feed – that I ended up having multiple parallel conversations about the ideas of #GiveUpArt while the essay was being tweeted. I was getting swept up in currents of conversation around the hashtag. I began to feel quite overwhelmed by the participation, and spent the full two hours frantically reading and responding to the comments.

Because so many ideas were flying around and being argued under the #SOTAflash hashtag already, my Twitter essay became a small nexus of chatter amid a much wider conversation with many other nexuses. Nexii. Nexapodes. I did dominate that feed for two hours, inevitably, but far less than I’d originally expected and worried about. It was thrilling to know that my conversations were just some among many: that the curators of #SOTAflash had created a multi-level and highly participatory site of argument alongside and around SOTA itself. The result is that several participants at SOTA quickly recognised that everything happening on the conference fringe was far more interesting and relevant than the conference itself, in form as well as in content. For my part, I couldn’t begin to understand why anyone would pay money to listen to dull, centrist speakers and have heavily-structured conversations rather than take part in a fluid, chaotic, freely-accessible multi-platform argument taking place in both cyber- and meatspace. Of course SOTA was dull: the form set it up to be so. It’s hopeless to expect anything worthwhile to come out of a conference format so out of touch with trends and currents in the way people now think and create. A hierarchical, authoritarian format will produce thought hemmed in by those structures of power: a horizontal, anarchic format will produce a wild variety of dissent and passionate, provocative thought.

As for #GiveUpArt, well,  it became much more of a performance, much more of an event, than I’d originally expected: it was a series of stimulating interactions and conversations triggered by or taking place around the brief bursts of pre-planned thought, and that’s much more interesting than just publishing an essay in short snippets. As a result, I became much more of a performer, tweeting about my own frenetic tweeting, thanking people profusely, arguing more provocatively, enjoying the lights that were shining in my direction. Twitter just is this fascinating blur of writing and performance: it is writing-as-performance, or performance-as-writing. It is a real-time experience with a short-lived archive; readers/watchers are participating not-quite-simultaneously, or even several days after each other. Twitter’s texts are technically almost permanent (and can be made more permanent), but after a week they’re even less likely to be read than books in a library’s backstock. And even though an archive does exist, it’s really no more complete and accurate than an archive of a theatre production: you can see the script, the props, the film of the performance, the programme, the audience interviews, and still not really understand the feeling of being part of the event. Twitter, like so much of the internet, is the transitory masquerading as the permanent.

After the day, I’d intended to archive everything that was tweeted under the #GiveUpArt hashtag. But I got too busy and delayed for a few days, and now, as you can see, Twitter’s search archiving is so minimal that that conversation is no longer easily organised and archivable: to do so, I’d have to trawl through the personal feeds of everyone who participated and extract the relevant tweets, no longer accurately timestamped, and reconstruct the conversation as it happened. That’s far too time-consuming! – and the results would be incomplete and unsatisfying. But as I’ve implied, I’m almost glad it’s too much effort now to archive: I don’t think there’s really any suitable means of completely recording multidirectional Twitter conversations, and I don’t think such a recording would capture any relevant essence of the event. For a reader who wasn’t part of it, it would be like trying to listen in on a crackly audio recording of a busy argument; for a reader who was part of it, it would add nothing to the memory.

On the other hand, another version of the essay is soon to be published in print format, and I’m glad of that, too. It will be another aspect of the same project, in the way 2001’s different elements reflected and expanded on each other. A print essay is only minimally an event, just as a Twitter conversation is only minimally an essay – the two share aspects of each other, but are ultimately (and politically) different. I think I’ll find the print essay less immediately fulfilling than the Twitter conversation, but I also think I’ll remember it and what results more and for longer.

One thing I will record now is part a conversation which took place in a chat window while all the tweeting was going on. Its subjects are parallel to those of #GiveUpArt, just as it took place in parallel to the event, but I thought some readers might find it interesting. I’m the first speaker; the second is a Marxist anthropologist friend of mine, a comrade of protests, meetings, arguments and 12-hour tabletop RPG sessions.

It’s a bit intense
Trying to engage everyone who replies; difficult to keep up!

It got away from you. How exciting!
Creating through dialogue is quite exciting.

I fucken love it

This is why I’ve been watching your work with such interest. I knew you were thinking about such things when I was there, and I was just beginning to think about them.

The more I work with dialogue, the more I become convinced its a vital creative frontier.

Well working with it makes you realise how much all art (ignoring your essay, or at least its rhetoric) is dialogic, and merely conceals its origins.
Some of the comments around this are relevant:
People accusing her of “ripping off” the Clash, vs a dialogic understanding of hip-hop.

Oh yeh, MIA loves pressing those buttons :-D

Well it’s the essence of hip-hop. There was an amazing paper at this autonomist conference I attended about how hip-hop is an act of creation in the commons.

And those are the roots of all poetry
Baba Brinkman’s thesis is that hip-hop is a return to the roots of folk poetry and performance

Well Negri would argue that all productivity is immediately production in common, and it takes juridical private property to convince us otherwise.


Essay as event… Wonderful.
“Work can be liberated because it is essentially the one human mode of existence which is simultaneously collective, rational and interdependent. It generates solidarity. Capitalism and socialism have only succeeded in subjugating work to a social mechanism which is logocentric or paranoid, authoritarian and potentially destructive.” Negri and Guattari

Ooh nice

Damnit, I’m signing up for twitter.

Oh no!
You’ve buckled
It happens to us all eventually
Do you mind if I publish the bits of this conversation about #GiveUpArt in a reflections blog tomorrow?

Of course not.
Fuck ownership.
I’m pleased my work’s of some use.