Sunday, 11 January 2009
_________________________________________----_______© Tim Etchells
Following my last post on Postcards..., Theatre Record editor Ian Shuttleworth – who I quoted at some length – made a couple of not unreasonable, raised-eyebrow type observations. Rather than going back and fleshing out the original train of thought I half-started on Friday, it seems simpler to restart it again here.
At the end of Upstream, upbeat, which mostly concentrates on work I saw in 2008 and what’s coming up in 2009, I made a quick, underdeveloped aside about a welcome and perceptible shift in Britain’s theatre-critical culture, which was prompted by reading a particular editorial in Theatre Record from 2004. I won’t reproduce it all again, but the bit that surprised me reads as follows:
“How, then, do we [British critics] react to work which is outside our more accustomed province? It's an interesting matter to consider, in a fortnight when we're presented with new pieces by both Forced Entertainment and Shunt, each a collective dedicated to presenting non-scripted, non-linear work.” I quickly went on to suggest “it looks like we’ve got proof positive of the paradigm shift that has been effected by the blogosphere” without really explaining why.
“by the blogosphere”? Shuttleworth cannily queries. Quite. The conclusion that what I perceived as a departure from the position the above-quoted passage has anything to do with the blogosphere needs a bit of unpacking and introducing before being suddenly whizzed round the corner and slammed into the end of a suggestion as a fait accompli. I disagree with Ian’s second comment that I make a “fallacious presumption” that his “mention of Forced Ent and Shunt back then pretty much constituted a demarcation of the outer limits of what was currently being considered. In fact they probably just constituted the outer limits of that particular fortnight.”
I don’t think I implied that Forced Ents and Shunt were *demarcation* of outer limits per se; or at least I didn’t intend to. What had surprised me was that in ’04 they were both described as “work which is outside our more accustomed province”. My point was that in ’09 such work seems much more likely to fall well *within* our “accustomed province”; that there is more of it about, and that critics are more likely (though by no means guaranteed) to engage with it rather than automatically dismiss it.
So what does any of this have to do with the blogosphere? Well, my pet theory, which I should have explained, is that since about 2005/6, because of the gradual growth of blogs writing about theatre/performance, and more often than not about non-mainstream work, a conversation (a discourse, if you like) has grown up around this work which has been both rigorous and accessible. Thanks to very public, very readable arguments like the one between George Hunka, Chris Goode and David Eldridge (the latter’s contribution now sadly taken offline), debates about why artists might want to make non-mainstream work, how they went about doing so, and most crucially what it was in their work that they perceived to be of value and the ways in which it can be approached, became public domain in a way that “performance studies” journals and essays tend not to be. For a start it was online and free. Anyone who was interested could read it. And because the discussions took place across a fairly broad spectrum in terms of both artistic outlook (Eldridge – Goode) and geography (Hunka – and, uh, Britain), they attracted a wider readership than just their own “fanbase”s (for want of a better word).
Beyond that, thanks to the general atmosphere of respect for one another as artists – even if totally opposed to each others’ positions – the conversations would be conducted not with an eye to sensationalism, but to genuinely trying to set out their positions. Even if synthesis was never quite reached, in the process, and in blogging more generally, a huge swathe of theoretical material, conversations about non-mainstream work, and strategies for approaching it, had a) become rapidly available, and b) become a major talking point for those interested in theatre.
White Male in Anger
This level of interest has an impact. If the Dead White Males hoo-hah could be taken as the moment when the blogosphere came into its own (although I am wary of giving blogging it’s own Look Back in Anger moment, as such things tend to sow the seeds for deeply reactionary tendencies to emerge later), it is primarily because there was a place for dissent to be registered. Moreover, there was a place where alternative viewpoints and positions were gradually being allowed to be given weight.
If we think back to all those “Is blogging the death of criticism?” pieces that turned up in the wake of the DWM kerfuffle, their primary concern seemed to be with how well-informed “bloggers” were and whether an “amateur”’s subjective opinion could be as good as that of a “professional”. However, these pieces often assumed that A Blog would be in direct competition with A Review, seeking to provide the same basic services (whatever those services might be – for full discussion, see millions of blogs, passim). However, such debates completely missed the fact that a large proportion of the theatrical blogosphere was an ongoing conversation that was gradually talking into being a pretty cogent user’s-guide to alternative theatre practices. Simply by giving exposure to - and enjoying, and discussing the work of - companies not being recognised in the mainstream press, such companies found themselves getting wider attention.
The net result is that, along with watching a bunch of people in costumes pretending to be other people - whose lines they learned from a printed script - in a darkened auditorium, another of our [critics’] more accustomed provinces these days is watching non-scripted, non-linear work, frequently presented in non-traditional/non-purpose built performance spaces. So much so, in fact, that as I noted in my short contribution to the Time Out end-of-year round up “It’s been a good year for… Site-sympathetic theatre. Soon every theatre will be putting on performances in underground car parks and office spaces and using the main stages for storage.” In a nice bit of synchronicity, Chris Goode’s newest blog post, notes the first example of this trend in 2009 and does an excellent job of unpacking the problems associated with the potentially uninterrogated wholesale importing of site-sympathy into the mainstream.
Is it rational to suggest this is all the doing of the blogosphere, though? No, of course not (and still less so to credit any change in Ian Shuttleworth’s personal position, which I possibly misrepresented in the first place, to it – although I’m not wholly discounting the possibility). But a lot of ideas discussed on the blogosphere have gradually gained a more general weight and acceptance. In part, this is to do with the fact that once an idea has been put into the public arena, it immediately starts to become less “shock of the new” and is increasingly assimilated and gradually going from being merely accepted to being expected. At the same time, the discussion around the value of such ideas gives audiences a way into work that may have seemed impenetrable.
There is a sort of truism that runs something along the lines of: “If you need a programme (or whatever) to understand a show, then it has failed”. Apart from being hysterically prescriptive – after all, there’s a counter argument that could run: “Why shouldn’t a programme (or whatever) allowed to play an integral part in a show?” the main problem with the statement is that it takes *now* as some kind of platonic ideal for information. All theatre, to a greater or lesser extent, will use a set of signs and conventions. Some are just more widely circulated and recognised and accepted in our current theatre culture. For example, other actors/characters not being able to hear an aside. It’s no more or less perplexing than the moment when, say, Andromache (I think it was) walked backwards across the stage in slow motion in Katie Mitchell’s Women of Troy.
“But what does that even mean, though?” critics of the latter might be tempted to cry. The question of “meaning” in the context of British theatre is an interesting one. Again, thanks to being exposed last year not only to a dizzying array of mainland European work, but also to my colleagues’ strategies for writing and thinking about (and in many cases also making) such work, the British desire for “meaning” started to feel distinctly odd. It’s one of the areas of which the blogosphere has expanded our possible frames of reference, but it remains possibly the hardest barricade to collapse.
Put simply, having been exposed to more contemporary dance and dance theatre, the concept of “what something means” has significantly shifted for me. There used to be an old chestnut at the National Student Drama Festival that when companies had made a devised piece full of opaque allusion and movement, they would say “It means whatever you want it to mean.” And would then have strips torn off them from all sides for “not taking responsibility for their piece’s meaning”. Being a student drama festival, this swung both ways; on one hand, there was the frequent suspiction that students really didn’t have the faintest idea what they were doing and as a result had simply created something that looked nice but which they didn’t really fully understand themselves. On the other hand, it seemed to suggest that what they were making had a responsibility to “mean something”. I’m not sure I fully agree with the second position any more.
The main reason for this is choreography. Choreography, unlike, say, dialectical text-based drama, isn’t necessarily “responsible” for providing an easy-(or difficult)-to-follow argument or story. Its wealth of allusion can be entirely impenetrable, and yet it can still move and communicate. Watching dance I often resent the fact that my brain is so theatre-trained (or is it British, or is it human) that it often won’t stop “reading” “stories” onto sequences of movement. My colleague Goda Dapsyte, a Lithuanian dance critic and producer, often used the expressions “dance-brain” and “theatre-brain” to distinguish between what she saw as two totally different ways of looking at the same work. Dance-brain thinking, as I understood it, involved a better understanding of what choreographic techniques had been used, and also seemed to have a greater tolerance for the slow build and minutes on end of repetition used in much contemporary dance. Theatre-brains, might be more prone to thinking, “Well, yes, you’ve done that movement now. We’ve seen it, we’ve taken it on board; you don’t need to repeat it agonisingly slowly 36 times. We’ve got the point. Move on”.
I’m getting a bit off the point, but the fact that two such radically different modes of interpretation can exist, suggests that this question of meaning is also far from fixed. Returning to the National Student Drama Festival, one of the best ways into thinking about contemporary dance was provided by then selector Matt Fenton, who in discussing a piece of work by two Dartington students, which had met largely with baffled incomprehension, explained that he responded to the piece rather as one might to a piece of jazz music. Music, if anything, is an even better way of thinking about alternative strategies for how “meaning” is created and transmitted. How much do we need to know about a piece of music for it to move us? How much narrative or argument need be involved?
All of which sort of brings me roundabout back to the beginning of this diversion, and the initial question of the blogosphere, the transformation of critical thinking, the retrenching of the mainstream and the growth of new ways of seeing theatre. I do believe that the four elements are inextricably linked, perhaps mostly in ways that are as yet to fully reveal themselves, but it seems impossible to discount the possibility just yet. Of course, those of the Billington school might well argue that all of the above is just proof that a lot of “trendy” thinking has made me a useful idiot for whatever charlatans turn up claiming that responsibility for the meaning in their piece resides in me as an active spectator, rather than in them as a company. To this charge one can only respond that even if the criteria *appear* to be more subjective and personal, there a) can still be a huge degree of judgement operated by the spectator, and b) it’s only them (the Billingtonites) who believe that their preferred forms hold to some imagined objective standards anyway.