Class Act: Days Two and Three, words and games are shaped

Events, Theatre

Now that the rough shape of the show’s together, the last two days have been about developing the text and the game design. Here’s me talking about the text development, and why it’s a bit different from developing a full script:

A couple of the ideas here are inspired by some things Darren O’Donnell wrote in Social Acupuncture, which I blogged about here. The quote I paraphrase is:

The innocent gestures of the spontaneous will always tell us complex and politically charged things about this very moment.

I’m realising, too, how much of what I’m doing with the text and design of this show is about stripping as much of the theatricality away from it as I can, while keeping it still an entertainment. Early on in the text I’ll say something like

You should know that this is it. There’s me, there’s you, there’s a screen, and there’s a bunch of stuff we’re going to play around with. I’ll do a good bit of the talking, but I’d like you to join in, and the whole thing’s going to go as informally as any pre-planned show can go. Relax.

There all sorts of aesthetic ideology bundled up in that disingenuous set of lines, and even for contemporary theatre audiences there’s nothing relaxing about acknowledging the theatre space (although it is sometimes dangerously comfortable artistic territory). But what it’s about, for me, is being as honest as a performer can be, and being totally clear with the audience about what’s happening as we spend time together.

That’s something I learned from playing games with audiences and designing interactions. For a game to work, the players need to understand the rules; for an audience to participate and enjoy it, you need to be clear what the contract with them is. They want to know what’s going on. One of the reasons the mores of fourth-wall-breaking turn up so often in this kind of thing is that performers are anxious to make the audience feel at ease with their uneasiness.

I don’t want you to think, though, that the show’s not going to be dramatic. It is, just in a different way. About half of the show is monologue, and about half of it is games with the audience — the structure’s all about using the one to support the other, and about building a dramatic tension in ways that aren’t about story. Theatre is about creating satisfying and important experiences for audiences, and story’s just one of those ways. I’m increasingly excited about the ways we’re going to create experiences together.

The show’s starting to settle down, so tomorrow I’m bringing some collaborators into the studio to shake it up again. I’ll be looking for feedback on what we’ve got so far, but also trying to get some new ideas out of them, to spin the show a little. Plus, it’ll be fun just to play.

Day One
Days Two and Three
Day Four
Day Five
Day Eight
Days Nine and Ten

Class Act: Day One, it all begins to come out

Events, Theatre

I’m going to be blogging and making wee videos during the process of making Class Act. It’s partly because it’s really useful for me to reflect on what I’m doing, partly to have a platform to talk more about the theory behind the show, and partly because some folk have asked questions about what exactly I’m doing in the studio space, mostly by myself, for two weeks.

In the run up to coming down to London, I deliberately didn’t try to pin down the ideas for the show – I did reading, did research, asked questions, had conversations about ideas, but didn’t write anything down and didn’t make definite decisions. I want the show to be the product of a full-time professional development process – both my last shows, “PROPERTY&THEFT” and “This is not a riot” were put together while working on multiple other projects, and that’s really tiring and not great artistically. But I also wanted to let ideas gestate, swill around my head for a while, develop.

That meant that Day One was all about splurging those ideas out. I arrived in the studio with a big pile of stationery, several books, and a lot of thoughts. Here’s a quick video:

What’s going on here is that the rammy of stuff in my brain is getting externalised – the theatre becomes like a physical extension of my thinking. This helps me see the possibilities more clearly – a simple example is that, if each big sheet is a scene in the performance, I can much more easily imagine what changing the order will do by physically changing the order of the sheets. It’s also a planning tool: all those post-its are things I need to decide, or ask, or acquire. So the studio of a work-in-progress is an externalisation of internal process. Thoughts are flipcharts, imagined performances have points in space.

Having space is really crucial to this. Physical space dedicated to your project gives you room to move around in the ideas as well as creative focus. Much at the research stage could be done at home, but it’s better when my thinking has walls to live on. For me, home is the space where my two dozen projects happen. To work on just one thing, I need to go somewhere else.

The other big thing that happened in Day One was a major Skype call with James, my collaborator in Australia. James is a really great social game designer and right on Marxist – we played a lot of games together when we were undergrads, and he’s since done really interesting work on using big LARP-style games in teaching setting. Just what I need for this show, which is all about finding fun, accessible ways to get into the nitty gritty of class.

James and I thrashed out the ideas and had a lot of fun doing it. He helped come up with some key game mechanics for the show – including a big meta-game that’ll last the length of the piece and is going to be tremendous fun (spoiler: you’re going to be charged rent on your seats) – as well as clean up my very lay understanding of Marxist economics. We’re thrashing out the full game designs by email now, and I hear he’s having fun with spreadsheets. He says: “Working on a kind of Marxist economy 101 simulator. When I entered in the formula and hit return, the rate of profit was declining over time. Phew. On the right track.”

Don’t worry about all the Marx, by the way. The idea of the fun and games in the show is to talk about theory without ever having to lecture – we have an argument by playing a game, not by shouting at each other. Plus, we made a really important decision: currency in the show will be in tasty sweets, so that if you get bored you can always give yourself tooth decay. Plus, there’ll be lego.

Day One
Days Two and Three
Day Four
Day Five
Day Eight
Days Nine and Ten

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.