Nov 20, 2007

You've got to Need it.

I heard an interesting thing the other day.

A friend of mine who works in the tantalisingly mysterious world of alternate reality games (ARGs) was describing the nuts and bolts of how exactly they are put together. These events are beautifully logical fictitious stories involving scenarios, puzzles, false businesses and fake characters all played out across real locations, phone, video, letters and, of course, the wide open spaces of the internet. For my friend however the most interesting, the most exciting and the most enjoyable elements were always those moments of live performance (of theatre) that occurred as part of the game. He also noted that these elements weren't just thrilling in the context of the game but, indeed, were simply thrilling moments of theatre, more so than most of what goes on onstage and suggested that this might be a consequence of the fact that these people came to theatre (or, indeed, live performance) only when it most suited what they had, or needed to say.

And this is what interests me, this need for theatre, as the absolute only way in which we can do what it is we want to do.

Looking back a little, the same might be said of the group of Artists in the US and Europe in the 60s who were involved in the development of what became known as happenings. Beginning with art that simply transcended the pictoral (art that wasn't of something), they moved first towards art that was either in some ways a document of performance (Pollock wading through his canvases brush in hand) or incorporated real world objects (Rauschenberg and his assemblages) towards installations and then finally into live performance, through a desire or a need to explore to its fullest the 'give and take between art and the physical world'.

In performance they found the possibility for an art that could properly embrace chance and unpredictability and in doing so refer to (and be a part of) the real world. And it is apparent simply looking around at a lot of the most interesting work that is happening today (from the sweaty huddled archetypes of Particularly in the Heartland and their relationship with ClaesOldenburg's Ray Gun Theatre, to the programmed performances of Rotozaza or, even Chris Goode's Homemade and their relationship to John Cage and Allan Kaprow's work) that this moment in art history has had a radical and thrilling impact on theatre.

The point being (and there is one but its late so you'll forgive me if its hazy), that some of the time the most interesting people making theatre arrive at live performance from somewhere else entirely. And the reason for this I believe is that these people, a lot of the time, are chasing something that those in theatre absolutely take for granted. That immediacy, that unpredictability, that hand-made, visceral, unrepeatable, interactive quality that is theatre at its essence. Theatre that, in Tim Etchell's words, is an 'invitation to be here and be now, to feel exactly what it is to be in this and this time.'

When these people therefore arrive at theatre frequently (though not all the time) it is these qualities that their work absolutely revels in, joyously embracing those qualities of liveness that previously weren't open to them - that heart-jammed-in-your-throat excitement of being caught up in an event, of being a part of it. That visceral quality of being close enough to someone to see their flaws, to smell them, to see them fuck something up, to know that they are present in front of you - that you can talk back and they will hear, and can respond.

Without coming to theatre looking for these qualities it is too easy to assume theatre as your default mode of engagement - without asking yourself why that is. How many people on young writer's courses up and down the country ask themselves why they're writing a play rather than a book or a movie or a poem or a diary (other than that as they are indeed, on writer's programme it stands a much better chance of actually being seen by someone and produced than any of the others)? How often when a writer is sitting on her laptop is she thinking about the bodies that will be sharing the same air for a few hours at some point in the future?

Not that this is all about writers by any means. God knows how many directors get trigger happy when they've been giving a few pennies to spend and lavish it on microphones and video-players and complicated stage mechanics and possibly forget why it was they were making theatre not movies in the first place.

So long live those interlopers (the gamers, the artists, the craftsmen, the sportsmen) for reminding us what makes theatre such a damned desirable medium, fizzing with possibilities.


Andrew Haydon said...

Oddly enough, I've just come back from Munich, where I saw a deconstructed Oedipus Rex which revolved around a voluteer from the audience wandering around the stage wearing a purpose-built virtual reality-type helmet. Expect lengthy blogging sometime soon. The short version is: I really have seen the future, and we think we'e got experimental theatre in this country, we've got another think coming...

Tassos said...

Oddly enough, Andy's 'friend' sounds a little like me, although I'm sure he's not. I know I wouldn't say I work in ARGs, itself a term flogged to the point of genre where it doesn't mean that much. The burgeoning field where I'm finding myself is very happy to take whatever combination of forms and media works best according to need (and the nature of that need is crucial, but that's another comment).

I really look forward to your lengthy blogging, Andrew H, and that piece you describe sounds exciting, but I take issue with your short version.

Who's that we? The royal we?

Experimental in the proper sense of making experiments to test ideas and find out what happens, to drive innovation to find the best means to deliver that story/experience/play/form you care most about...gotta find a snappier way to say that but... that experimental has been around since year dot. It's not or shouldn't be about novelty for its own sake. I've been lucky to have a taken a sidestep recently and found myself in a place where a lot of interesting and motivated ideas have the confidence and support to take shape in their best form. That confidence might be the thing that's sometimes missing in 'experimental theatre' here. But it's not that 'we' don't have the vision or desire.

And it's already happening.

Andrew Haydon said...

Yeah. I know. That was just flippant of me. It wasn't really meant to read like that, but without the context of what I actually meant (which I foolishly left in my brain), it does sound a bit dim. Forget I said it.

Long piece/s now up on Postcards, and being furiously contested by Shutters and a lovely German girl.