Sunday 11 January 2009

Unaccustomed provinces

_________________________________________----_______© 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 upIt’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.


Anonymous said...

"in ’09 such work seems much more likely to fall well *within* our 'accustomed province'": I disagree. If you work a cross-media mathematical average, then yeah, but principally that's because, since I wrote that TR editorial, there has been a disproportionate increase in the coverage of such territory within the blogosphere. I don't think the fact that, say, Shunt and Punchdrunk have become more generally known brands is evidence of a comprehensive realignment, any more than the similar brand-awareness of the Wooster Group was 20 or so years ago, or Charles Marowitz 20 years before that. I honestly don't think that principal print review coverage has broadened to anything like the degree you do, and I also still query whether post hoc is propter hoc with respect to the blogosphere's interest in such areas.

Indeed, you almost contradict yourself a few paragraphs later when you note precisely that the blogosphere's discourse has largely been in separate terms and directions from mainstream (i.e., still, print and broadcast) reviewing. There's a certain amount of "" in a viewpoint that sees connection/involvement from certain angles only.

I'll tell you something else, too: whether I'm right or wrong as regards a shift having taken place respect, that coverage is going to dwindle in the next year or two, as brute economics mean that less newsprint can be devoted in general, and around the margins (or, if you prefer, last-in-first-out) in particular.

I fear this may be an instance of blogosphere solipsism, particularly with regard to the DWM brouhaha. But as I say that, I also worry that I have in fact become more conservative over the same period of time, especially since my elevation to first-string has left me with less time to spend on less-big stuff.

"'If you need a programme (or whatever) to understand a show, then it has failed' [...] hysterically prescriptive" - well, gee, yeah, if you were to take it as Holy Writ. I don't know of anyone who's considered doing so for an instant. But it remains useful as a rebuttable working presumption.

"the British desire for 'meaning' started to feel distinctly odd" - hmmm, I need to unpack my response to this one a bit. I think it abuts on to those debates I've had in Chris Goode's territory, regarding theatre as an individual versus a communal event, the primacy of individual versus communal experience and so on. I am still convinced that much of the power of theatre comes from its being (generally - of course, we can all cite exceptions such as Slung Low's Helium) an event which one experiences not just in tandem with, but in common with, numbers of others. And I think signification also partakes of this: that "communal" and "communication" are in this respect bound up. And whilst it would clearly be absurd to expect every i of meaning to be dotted and every t crossed for every single viewer, it nevertheless seems to me to be a reasonable expectation, if not a downright essential precondition, for a piece of work to demarcate to some extent some zone of meaning within which it and its viewers will operate. "definition" isn't a matter of pinpoint sharpness; as the word suggests, it's about indicating limits within-which and outwith-which-not. And meaning is not, as you seem to imply, the same as "narrative or argument". Jazz generally has meaning too.

And my heart just sinks to see you signing up to the facile demonisation of Michael Billington as the personification of the Evil Ancien Régime in these respects. To be honest, whenever I do worry that I'm slipping to the right in terms of theatrical aesthetics, every encounter with that kind of - and I use the term with some deliberation - bigotry serves to make me less worried and more defiant about any such shift in myself.

Andrew Haydon said...

“My heart just sinks to see you signing up to the facile demonisation of Michael Billington as the personification of the Evil Ancien Régime in these respects.”

I’m sorry, but I’m not signing up for that at all. Firstly, it’s not demonisation. I’ve been reading Michael’s work for a good ten years and I’ve read both his big books and from this I’ve been able to gather a pretty clear idea of what he thinks. I don’t see him as the personification of more than his own views, to which a number of other bigger names in theatre (I’m thinking primarily of Davids Hare and Edgar) also seem to subscribe. Whilst I don’t especially agree with him, I certainly don’t think he or his opinions are evil, in much the same way that I’m sure he would simply disagree with mine. And, for the record, I actually try to keep an open mind when reading his work. His upgrade of Six Characters in Search of an Author from two stars in Chichester to four in the West End suggested a man who was willing to keep an open mind. His eagerness to pin something like Bliss at the Royal Court down to what felt like a rather reductive thesis on celebrity seemed more regrettable.

“I honestly don't think that principal print review coverage has broadened to anything like the degree you do”

I’m not sure that’s what I am saying, or was trying to say. I’m not even sure I was just talking about principal print review coverage. After all, Michael, Lyn, Charles Spencer, Dominic Cavendish, Karen Fricker, Matt Wolf, Michael Coveney and Mark Shenton all now write blogs to greater or lesser extents. The conversation around criticism has expanded a long way beyond just the reviews and the odd feature article here and there. And there are those regular round-ups on TheatreVOICE...

And, no, reviews coverage may not have widened significantly – it may well have even narrowed in terms of print – but I’m also interested by the nature of the work that is moving into places like the Royal Court and the National. Here we have two buildings neither of which are likely to slip off the critical radar any time soon (ok, maybe Upstairs at the Court might drop off if we’re down to three reviews a week or something), both putting on work that sometimes feels genuinely experimental, or at least non-traditional. And at the same time, it feels like part of the reason this can be done is that there seems to be a greater understanding and appetite for such work.

Maybe it is daft to suggest it is down to the blogosphere, but it does feel like there’s been a bit of a shift, which feels like it has been aided no end by the wealth of accessible new writing on newer sorts of theatre. Yes, of course the Woosters were around and had currency 20 years ago (although, lest we forget, they probably wouldn’t have made it over here at all without LIFT, which was run by people whose encounters with theatre, thanks to extensive international travel, were enormously broad in scope), but, at the same time, the Arts Council had so little idea what Forced Entertainment were up to, that they once threatened to withdraw funding on the basis that they couldn’t act (I paraphrase, but only very slightly). At least we now have a culture that understands what Forced Ents are up to, rather than misunderstanding them as a failure at something they were never trying to do (Matt Trueman’s blog on failure and Chris’s subsequent response become interesting in this context, and Lord knows how FE’s aesthetic will fare in the new Excellence environment, but...).

“To be honest, whenever I do worry that I'm slipping to the right in terms of theatrical aesthetics, every encounter with that kind of bigotry serves to make me less worried and more defiant about any such shift in myself.”

Well, let’s pretend you didn’t just misunderstand my précis of my understanding of MB’s position as bigotry – which it isn’t; it’s an ongoing engagement with something that frequently I don’t find myself agreeing with; especially when looking at the way he doesn’t like some of the work I do like.

More interesting is your characterisation of “slipping to the right in terms of theatrical aesthetics”. I assume you simply mean small ‘c’ conservatism. Also, you might well not be intending that any inference be drawn from you worrying about your own worries and how you might be characterising my characterisation of MB’s position, although it might be easy to do so. But, for the record, I’d never characterise MB’s sense of aesthetics as small ‘c’ conservatism. Quite the contrary, his aesthetics and politics are very much of a particular stripe of leftism.

“But as I say that, I also worry that I have in fact become more conservative over the same period of time, especially since my elevation to first-string has left me with less time to spend on less-big stuff.”

In fairness, I’d say if anything you’ve actually got more comfortable with the more high-minded end of non-linear, postdramatic, call it what you will, theatre. My perception, in decade or so I’ve known you, is that you’ve got more willing to engage with that sort of work. I know you always liked your Ken Campbells and whoever, but I think you’ve got a lot less knee-jerkingly cynical about people like Forced Ents or, say, Howard Barker than you used to be. You still don’t seem to trust “director’s theatre”, but I’m pretty sure that’s always going to be as much a matter of taste as much as acculturation, and lots of people (unaccountably, to me – when it’s good) don’t seem to like it.

“it nevertheless seems to me to be a reasonable expectation, if not a downright essential precondition, for a piece of work to demarcate to some extent some zone of meaning within which it and its viewers will operate”

What I was trying to get at before was that there’s lots of theatre in this country that doesn’t really need to explain what it is doing because we already understand the set of conventions being deployed. And it only takes a few outings for a convention, perhaps most usefully twinned with an apt critical response, for it not to need to explain *itself*, because it has already become readily understood. The initial reception for Blasted is a pretty good case in point. No one really got what Kane was up to in ‘96. Then lots of other people did, and explained it, and by the time it was revived in 2000, everyone knew how to approach the text. In a way, I worry that this is also a slightly doctrinaire approach, but it’s what happens anyway, and it’s how conventions, even new ones, come to be established enough that they can subsequently be subverted.

As for the wider questions on meaning, and what it means, I think we’ll either have to agree to disagree or postpone for another time.

I’m feeling my way here, so disagreement is useful. But I do still think there is more mainstream acceptance of things that were non-mainstream say five years ago. And I think this is because critics like Lyn and Jane Edwardes (in particular, but not exclusively), and directors like Dominic Cooke, Ramin Gray, Nicholas Hytner, Tom Morris, Emma Rice and Katie Mitchell have all pushed these for recognition of these forms. Which in turn is why Chris Goode now gets two mentions in Time Out’s end of year round-ups, and why Melanie Wilson’s picture gets put at the top of a Guardian blog in the same way that David Tennant’s might be.

Theatre is, in the wider analysis, a pretty small part of public life, and talking about it, either here or for money in print, is an even more marginal occupation, but that’s kind of beside the point. I’m not trying to say there’s been nothing new ever before, or that older critics are dinosaurs who want shooting. Quite the reverse. I suppose all I was saying, really, was that it was nice that people all seemed a bit happier with work of which I am quite fond, and now get to see more of, because I’m not in as much of a minority as I might have felt I was in certain areas five years ago.

And I’m still really looking forward to Private Lives at the Hampstead, lest anyone accuse me of narrow tastes.