Porous Dramaturgies AHRC Network meeting 1
Canterbury 22/23 February 2013
In my first response to the Porous Dramaturgies project I want to reflect on decisions. Partly because I write this with flu, this will not be a highly theoretical discussion but simply my own reflection on what has happened in our process so far.
In this respect, it is worth starting from the end. We finished the second day of our first meeting in Canterbury with a distinct feeling of confusion and accompanying agitation. Our two days were roughly divided into four parts. The morning session on the first day was dedicated to the 20-odd members of the Network introducing themselves to each other. This was followed by a public panel discussion featuring Sally Mackey, Alan Lydiard, Phelim McDermott, Jason Hird and Kully Thiarai. The second day started with a workshop demonstration from the Croatian company Shadow Casters, before it got to the slightly troubled discussion.
Led by Artistic Director Boris Bakal and eight University of Kent students who had worked together for the preceding three days, the Shadow Casters presentation involved the ’audience’ in a number of exercises where it gradually became clear that the tables had been turned on what it means to be a performer and what it means to be a spectator. There was an exercise for example where three members of the audience are invited to volunteer to sit on three chairs facing the audience. They are given instructions in writing while the rest of us wait to see what will happen. As the three begin ‘performing’ their tasks, the ‘spectators’ gradually realize that in fact they had been turned from the observers into the observed. The three ‘performers’ take their gaze around the row of seats the ‘spectators’ sit in, pausing occasionally, wearing a mysterious smile, or an expression that is imbued with a certain kind of meaning not immediately obvious to the ‘spectators’. After a few minutes, Boris invites people to swap – another three volunteers are given an opportunity to take to the three seats. And then another. And then another. From the spectators’ perspective we further infer that the three ‘performers’ have distinct instructions too and that in-jokes become possible between those who had been brave enough to be ‘performers’ – they become a different kind of ‘spectator’. As the ‘scene’ ends, the first controversial moment occurs – some of the ‘spectators’ who hadn’t chosen to volunteer want to see what was written in the instructions but they are stopped by the ‘facilitators’ and asked to wait until after the end of the whole session.
Another interesting moment involved all the participants being blindfolded, paired up, instructed to learn the specific characteristics of each other’s hands by touch alone, spun around and set to look for each other again while listening to music. As they find each other the successful pairs are allowed to take off their blindfolds and watch the others looking for each other. The ‘scene’ resulting from this was a situation where two people mistakenly believed they had found each other and remained paired up and blindfolded touching each other’s hands while the other two continued searching, for a long time. Eventually as one of them found his pair paired up with another, he and his pair were released too and the remaining two were left in the space to look for each other. They couldn’t do it without help, but the audience did not know whether or not they were ‘allowed’ to help.
The rules of the game, therefore, became a point of contention in the concluding discussion that followed. What am I allowed, and what am I not allowed to do in a situation like this one? Some people were irritated by the lack of clarity on what was going on – the lack of ‘transparency’ as one person put it; some people were irritated by the fact that they were asked to do certain things or that they were not allowed to do others. The notion of ‘manipulation’ was flagged up too. I was irritated by what I perceived as an a priori expectation of safety in a theatre experience. What does safety mean? Is it more safe to sit in a dark auditorium and laugh and clap on cue? Is porous dramaturgy inherently dangerous?
In the public talk the day before Kully Thiarai spoke about a situation where a major regional theatre came up with a fantastic plan to open themselves out to the community more but then they were paralysed with a fear of change to actually implement any of it. Are we equally ambiguous about our desire to embrace less fixed structures of working in the theatre (porous dramaturgies)? In a move to abandon the rules that might have existed so far (say, sitting in the safety of a dark auditorium laughing and clapping on cue), are we equally unwilling to let go of the desire to participate in the process of making the rules ourselves? Is there a question of (personal) power inherent to this paradigm shift? Is there a question of trust? Trust towards whom?
I guess as Cathy Turner’s Co-I, I ought to own up to where I am coming from in this situation. My narrative, coming from my own perspective, will inevitably differ slightly from Cathy’s in how this project came together. The fact is that we met at a Dramaturgy conference in Belfast in April 2011 and, over supper at Hanna Slattne’s place, raised questions of how we might put a network of people together. The word ‘dramaturgy’ was what we had in common and it formed a point of departure. The process of writing the project proposal unfolded over the following months and culminated in the submission to the AHRC about a year later. What I liked about this process – and this is where I return to my stated intention to reflect on decisions – was the fact that at times our decision-making in this process had been intuitive as well as strategic. We shaped the project as we went along in a way that is now difficult to take apart rationally – it kind of happened. We made a list of people we wanted to see in this group, on the basis of careful consideration of what they would bring to it, but also – at least in my case – on the basis of associative thinking in terms of it ‘feeling right’ that they should be involved. In the process of developing the application I was working on two book projects which dealt with the work of Shadow Casters, Kneehigh, Phelim McDermott, Ontroerend Goed – my thinking about the book projects and the network project inevitably overlapped, so these people were invited too. In planning the Canterbury event, the decision about the use of spaces was partly influenced by the fact that university spaces in term time would be in limited supply and partly by the fact that I wanted local theatres to be involved – we wanted to consider porosity in relation to theatre buildings too. In retrospect, I think, intuitively I was hoping that the kind of tension would occur which indeed did occur eventually – that we would find that porosity requires a slightly different kind of space. In short, there was an experimental element to my/our planning, which I felt would lead to discoveries about what porosity might mean. As I mentioned several times in the course of our first two days, the decision to put a selection of people (artists, cultural producers, academics) who don’t normally meet in a room together was deliberate – not because we wanted to cause friction, but because we wanted to have a structure for defining the term which would be as open, as porous as possible. I loved the fact that in the course of the meeting people had the courage to stop each other and say ‘what does that word mean?’. After all we all speak different languages in our silos… And, therefore, I feel that the decisions we have made are the right decisions, no matter what.
To return to Boris’s workshop. The final chapter of my book Theatre-Making (due out in 2013) deals with the work of Shadow Casters, Tim Crouch and Ontroerend Goed – all of whom have, incidentally, drawn on both theatre and performance art in their strategies of making. In it I look at the form of theatre authorship which necessitates the audience as a co-creator of meaning. I argue that these sorts of works re-invent Brecht for the 21st century by substituting ‘transitivity’ (characteristic of Brecht’s desired relationship with the audience) with ‘relationality’ (characteristic of the 21st century artist’s relationship with the audience as diagnosed by Bourriaud). Gaps are left for the audience to relate to the work on their own terms, rather than in a way prescribed by the author. This is best illustrated by Tim Crouch’s work The Author which, in my view, constructs an interesting (inherently Brechtian) paradox for the audience. This work, I argue, only provides closure for the audience if they engage in a reflective rather than an affective response (as those who had engaged in a solely affective response emerged from the show very, very angry and disturbed). The author’s intention seemed to be to get the audience to consider their options and arrive at the conclusion that it is fine to take the decision to walk out of this play. However, the audience are at no point told collectively what the rules are or that they are supposed to think critically, they are just offered the option to do so, in their own time, on their own terms. The affective engagement with the work is simply part of the game, but the ultimate fulfillment arrives through individual reflection. I do not have the space to discuss this work at length here, the discussion is available in the book. Another element of the discussion in my book useful here relates to the way in which this kind of work (created by Crouch, Ontroerend Goed and Shadow Casters) has the potential to create a kind of community proposed by Jean-Luc Nancy. Not a community created on the basis of totalitarian principles of ‘common being’ but one which consists of autonomous individuals with ‘being-in-common’. In other words, in order to be a healthy community it is necessary for us to be aware and accepting of our individualities and our differences as well as commonalities. I would add: through the process of individual reflection. (Not unlike our Network itself.)
It is no surprise therefore that the full effect of the two days we spent together on 22/23 February is only becoming apparent on reflection. People are prompted to write in with their thoughts and reflections. I too am able to feel more at ease now about what we have created – however disturbing it might have seemed at the end of the two-day event. In that afternoon session, Cathy for example flagged up a dilemma she experienced as part of the Shadow Casters presentation – whether or not to help the two blindfolded people looking for each other. She was unhappy because she didn’t know whether or not she was ‘allowed’ to do this. On reflection, I was reminded that in the panel discussion the previous day I faced a similar dilemma when Cathy chose to voice her frustration with Shunt’s piece The Architects. Noticing that Mischa Twitchin was in the audience, and being in the position of a discussion moderator, I too was unsure whether or not to put these two people together in a direct conversation with each other.
Would I have been allowed to do this? I guess the point I am trying to make is that we are going through life on a daily basis unsure of what we are and are not allowed to do. But at the end of the day this is the fault of our own ‘cops in the head’ as Boal would have it, and not so much the fault of an orchestrator of the theatre experience. As I said on the day, at least the potential of putting the blind-folded people together was there (more so than in a conventional theatre piece) – depending on how strong our need for closed dramaturgy would have been at that point in time. And ultimately this would have been ‘safer’ to do than to have made an intervention in a real life situation, as I was tempted to do the day before. So isn’t the point of a porous piece like this one more to do with becoming aware of our own position in relation to all this? Why do I need closed dramaturgy? Why do I seek permission? Why do I stop myself from doing what I feel the need to do? And what if I do make an intervention? These questions are so much more important for us in terms of our place in the world ultimately, rather than our place in the theatre. Isn’t that the point of porous dramaturgy? Do we not agree that the most exciting moments do happen when, as Phelim McDermott did in the ‘watching’ exercise, an individual decides to break the rule and give themselves permission to step out of line in pursuit of a truer fulfillment of their own objective?
Finally, a thought about ‘dramaturgy’ in a form of porous dramaturgy illustrated by Shadow Casters on this occasion. Even though this was just a presentation rehearsed for three days rather than the customary several months that Shadow Casters normally take, it was interesting to note that the dramaturgy of the presentation was clearly considered too. I happen to know that one of the first things that Boris did with the students in their first meeting together was define dramaturgy as the most important element of his work. The definition goes: ‘Dramaturgy is a freefall of sense by cubic centimeter of time’. This was aided by a considered narrative of the presentation itself. We started off with chatting in pairs to each other. We were then blindfolded and set to look for our pair. When we opened our eyes, we saw the room as a whole for the first time with everyone else engaged in the process of looking at/ looking for each other. Then we explored the notion of ‘watching’ with the three seats set up against the row of chairs – those who took part discovered that they were watching the rest as if they were babies, or as if they were naked, or as if they were old. The following section had us divided into smaller groups with specific tasks (storytelling, persuading, debating) – and this then led to a bigger debate involving everyone present. Finally we returned to the notion of ‘theatre’. Three ‘actors’ ‘performed’ (for the first time, finally) a ‘scene’ they had ‘rehearsed’. Then, as we remained seated in the same configuration, we were invited to take part in an improvisation with the ‘actors’. Two ‘audience members’ took to the stage and ‘performed’ a scene with seemingly equal levels of competence as the ‘actors’, despite the obvious fact that they had not ‘rehearsed’ it. Finally, one member of the ‘audience’ took to the stage alone to perform a solo. This last task was imbued with its own lyricism simply by how it was conceived – the ‘performer’ apparently had it whispered in his ear by Boris that he has just ‘died’ and now gets a chance to bid his last farewell to the world. We were lucky that Phelim McDermott took on this challenge and brought us much delight in the process, but I doubt that anyone would really muck up dreadfully if they were put in a similar situation. At the end of the day, one makes of it all what they will. The audience have individual rather than collective journeys through the piece and that makes a sense of Nancy-nian ‘community’ possible. The way I read this particular porous ‘piece’ is ultimately that there ought to be no discernable difference between the ‘actor’ and the ‘audience member’ the way we are lead to believe that this is the case in conventional theatre. Anyone can be enabled to take part – in theatre, as in life alike. And a dose of structural mystique – in the place of transparency – is useful in facilitating ‘safe’ conditions for a process of reflection…
In choosing to write about decisions, I am not relinquishing the responsibility for learning from those aspects of the experience that didn’t seem to work. People were unsettled, and they didn’t need to be. Perhaps the potential for feeling unsettled should have been anticipated and more clearly signposted. In Serbia, ‘it’s a trumpet’ is – or at least it used to be – a slang expression for something disappointing. I guess if you look inside the trumpet you just find that it is hollow and therefore any expectations regarding its mechanism that you might have brought to the prospect of looking are quashed. Perhaps what we did in looking at porous dramaturgies on this occasion was focus on the hollow bits rather than the structure itself. Perhaps what we need to do is revisit Brecht’s perspective on the trumpet as a source of brass. Perhaps Exeter will offer a chance to just appreciate the music.
What I liked about these two days
– People having the courage to ask questions when they didn’t understand something
– There were people there literally from all corners of the country (except perhaps Scotland – which will change in Exeter)
– We didn’t spend two days sitting around talking (and going over the same ground)
– We had time and space to talk to each other, to network and make individual plans
– The word ‘kindness’ was mentioned a lot
What I didn’t like
– We didn’t provide cushions for potential vulnerabilities
– Falling into the trap of taking things for granted – that safety or transparency or even mutual understanding should be an a priori requirement
Questions for me:
– How to remove fears from the room?
– How to facilitate change?
– Is it necessary to make people feel safe about everything – what is wrong with jumping in at the deep end – how do I learn to articulate the benefit of uncertainty as a means of priming people???