Jun 16, 2007

Its The End Of The World As We Know It

Last night I found myself in the Trocadero Centre in Piccadilly for the first time since I was about 12 years old and my word, is it ever a horrible place.

The Trocadero Centre is a bustling, awful cathedral of arcade games, shops, and mass-produced entertainment. Electronic blips and beeps compete with thrashing disco noise and the sound of a thousand Dance Dance Revolution machines. Everything is lit by at least a dozen lights all attempting to outdo each other for quite how gaudy and unpleasant they can be. Unlike Las Vegas there's no sense of faded glamour or over-the-top bombast - it's just a relentless, sugary, overcrowded, overstocked, overpriced black hole of electric excess. It must have a carbon footprint the size of Kent, I mean there's just so much waste - I half expected to find a Native American sitting in a corner weeping. Its a shopping centre without the manufactured calm. Its a theme-park without the sense of wonder. Its a drug trip you have to share with a bunch of sinister, unattractive people you don't know. It's dirty. It's characterless. It is about as entertaining as gout. It's a great festering pustule in the middle of London's face. As I left all I wanted to do was take a shower and plant a tree.

But the important thing is that this utterly decadent monument to 21st century entertainment is every day becoming more of an anachronism. When even this man, in his own weaselly way, concedes that major changes are going to have to be made for the sake of the environment, it is clear that we are at the tipping point of a major sea change in the way we think about waste. Excess is already growing more stigmatised. Even if we don't care enough to do it, we care enough now to pretend that we recycle. Restaurants compete for the number of times they can have the phrases organic and local-sourced in their menus. Companies scatter their promotional material with aphorisms about carbon neutrality and waste management. And even if all this is just sweet talk and hot air, it is I believe the vanguard of a wholesale transformation of what we consider acceptable waste.

And this is inevitably going to affect theatre.

In a fascinating talk with Soutra Gilmour yesterday we began to think about the ways in which the demands for greater environmental awareness are going to transform theatre practise.

For a start she suggested there will be less theatre - fewer productions, fewer performances, fewer buildings. And she saw this as a very good thing. I agree in part. There is far too much pointless, excesses theatre gets spat out (in the West End in particularly) just for the sake of it. A little less action and a little more conversation might be a very good thing for the quality of theatre in this country. Though the idea that there will be fewer productions for which everyone involved is paid more is an easy enough idea for her to support from within the theatre establishment. If you're in, you're in - if you're out your chances of actually getting in are even harder. However, even at the moment almost all the jobs in theatre seem to be shared between about 7 people who are constantly working on several projects at once, without the time to put enough care or attention into any of them, so perhaps the difference for those still trying to make it would be negligible.

But beyond merely scaling down we believed there will be some fundamental changes in the way in which people think about theatre production.

For a start the idea of shows existing entirely independently of each other will become seen as a more and more pointlessly wasteful experience. Within any big producing house recycling and more importantly reincorporation should become second nature - fundamentally, they should stop making new things simply because they can afford to. Borrowing from the expediency of fringe and amateur theatre, big producing houses should look at what they already have and how they can build new shows around that.

The RSC's History cycle is an interesting yet obvious example of the way in which continuity in style (props/costume/etc) can prove an interesting spectacle over the course of a season but why can't this be extended to a series of unrelated plays? How about a season in which The Duchess of Malfi, Sexual Perversity in Chicago and a piece of new writing share props, set and costume? As Gilmour pointed out, a company like The Wooster Group is constantly reincorporating props from previous productions into their new ones - it has become a vital and interesting part of their theatre vocabulary. Maybe some of the playwrights out there could tell me how they would feel about being offered a set or a rummage around in costume/props to inspire them to a new play?

And if we start to move away from the theatre building there is even more that can be done. Take, for example, the work of a company like Wrights and Sights in Cornwall, who have created a series of performative guide books for walks around Exeter. Here theatre is created by just placing a frame around something very ordinary. Sometimes that's all you need to do. Get audience's to really look at what is already there. If you want to create a show about a country house, don't bring the country house to the actors and the audience; take the actors and the audience to the country house.

To take this to its extreme, theatre can actually have a positive effect on the environment; re-developing, restoring, recycling wasted buildings, props, whole areas. When Punchdrunk first came across the site for their version of Faust in Wapping it was derelict, an overlooked hole full of carpets soaked through with dog food and human faeces. Much of their budget was spent on restoring the building before they even began to put anything in it. The National Theatre of Scotland have ably demonstrated that a large production house doesn't need a, well, a large production house. Go out - leave the Olivier and its big trundly revolve - and find spaces for theatre to inhabit - for theatre to redevelop.

Of course its not for me or anyone else to say what will or won't happen as theatre (a famously slow learner) comes to terms with a world that's having to take a long good look at itself. But it seems apparent that at some stage we will have to abandon the notion that everything has to be new in order to be original. Punchdrunk are again leading the way with their production of Masque of the Red Death, in which they will be exploring different ways of using a space very common to a lot of fringe-goers - the Battersea Arts Centre. But we can still go further - what could someone like Katie Mitchell do with the set/props/costumes of the Lion King? Where might you go to find the right Kitchen for your Kitchen Sink Drama? What places do you know that you can just put a frame around and take people's breath away?


Statler said...

I'm surprised and a little disappointed by this piece, if not quite shocked. I had always assumed that companies would already be doing as much a possible to re-use, recycle and adapt props, sets and costumes either themselves or through some form of exchange market with other companies.

As for the suggestion that we'll see fewer productions and performances, well hopefully yes and no. Here in Glasgow shows tend to have fairly short runs in theatres and have fairly limited touring schedules. To put all the development into a show for so few shows does seem wasteful, so I'd definitely like to see more extensive tours in the regions, with productions encouraged to push outwith their "home area". One of my favourite shows from 2006 was Theatrefusion's "Whitechapel Murders"
based on the victims of Jack the Ripper. The fact it was originally only staged for a handful of performances was a tragedy as it could have found a much wider audience (although fortunately it is being revived later this year). Many good productions die a death far too young, possibly through companies wanting to move on to the next project - again there is a strong case for potential exchanges of work around the country. So yes, there may be a reduction in the number of new shows nationally, but to a theatregoer in a particular area it would be unnoticeable.

Your comments on the NTS are very true - no buildings to fill and shows that can be staged in venues chosen to suit a piece. As well as "Black Watch" and "Roam" (staged at Edinburgh Airport) the NTS Young Company did a number of site specific productions - including the marvelous "The Recovery Position" with Mark Murphy. Although I think the recently announced NTS production with NVA of Half Life
staged in a remote glen is taking things to extreme - not to mention overly optimistic about Scottish weather conditions. On a side note, the inability of London to embrace "Black Watch" has to be seen as a lost opportunity for regeneration of a venue/site for future use.

At a Q&A session at last year's Nonsenseroom production at Rosslyn Chapel they were asked how the relationship between the company came about. They explained that it is very much a win-win relationship with the company getting access to a wonderful setting and the chapel trust being able to show funding organisations such as the lottery that it provides a wide use for the community outwith a religious role. These are the kind of relationships that should be encouraged.

Of course the other thing to remember is that outside the area of shows that require to be a spectacle, pared down productions can be every bit as impressive as all-singing, all-dancing ones and indeed on of my least favourite productions in recent years was a National Theatre tour of "An Inspector Calls" which was absolutely destroyed by a fantastic looking set which ultimately served just to make the audience feel remote from the performance.

Okay, enough already - sorry for rambling so long...

Andrew Field said...

To be honest I think I'm probably exagerating for the sake of generating quote 'Important Questions' unquote. The National already has a strong policy on recycling of props/sets already (i.e. they don't just stick them in a skip out back...). But I believe that simply recycling the raw materials will only get them so far.

My main argument is that there has to be a sea change in the way we see theatre. We will have to stop expecting each production that comes along to be entirely 'New'. We will need to encourage reincorporation and reinvention. They will become the norm. We should expect to see the same things again and again and rejoice in the way that these things are reimagined, rather than hoping that our breath is taken away by the spectacle that confronts us when the safety curtain rises.

Because, yes, seeing something new and spectacular is a wonderful experience. But so is being able to fly to Glasgow in an hour. And in The Future (capital T, captial F,)I think that neither is going to be a realistic possibility.