Experimental Theatre And The Legacy Of The 1990s


A personal account.

In Melbourne in October last year, Craig and I attended a talk hosted by festival director Kristy Edmunds. On the way to the venue we got chattingabout how Stan’s Cafe had changed over the years, from making stage shows in Birmingham in 1991 to filling tram sheds and old meat markets all over the world with rice in 2006. For the first time in a while I thought about the 1990s, the decade in which Stan established itself as a company and, not entirely coincidentally, I laid my own path as a deviser and performer in (what we used to call) experimental theatre.

In the 1980s, theatre was definitely the coolest art form in Britain (visual art having disappeared up its own minimalist arse). Companies like Impact, Station House Opera, Bow Gamelan, IOU, Forced Entertainment, Welfare State, Lumiere and Son, People Show and Ralf Ralf were all making their best work, and people were going to the theatre. In 1989 I toured ‘Gravity’ with IOU, a visual theatre company established in 1976. We visited venuesall over the country, two nights in each place, often sold out, for four weeks solid. In 1991, with ‘Weatherhouse’, we were in tiny venues playingto audiences sometimes as low as 10. What happened? I’ve tried to pinpoint some key moments that characterise the evolution of experimental theatre in the 1990s, shamelessly placing myself at the centre of the narrative, in an attempt to work out how we’ve arrived at the theatre scene of 2007.

The poll tax (later to become the council tax) and recession of 1990-1991
Very simply, people had less money and were less carefree about breezing off to their local theatre to broaden their minds with a new show by a company they may or may not have heard of. Gone were the days when IOU would turn up at a venue with a van full of props and improvise a show on the spot. Funding was squeezed in all areas, venues panicked and only booked safe bets (the beginning of the rash of ‘innovative versions of Shakespeare’)and fewer of them. Touring started to look like a mugs game, unless you were on the college circuit, where hundreds of students were being taught to make work just like us.Tiny new companies could probably clean up with cheap college gigs, but a big established company like IOU, with a prop and set-based practice and a proper wages bill, were simply too expensive. There were discussions about how companies could ever afford to mature, given these constraints. The answer, it seemed, was to impress one of the rapidly multiplying arts festivals (Glasgow Mayfest, Bradford Festival, Stockton Festival for example) to sponsor you for a one-off, or to get out of the theatres altogether (see below).

Established companies mature and attempt to evolve
IOU Theatre and the People Show, both co-operative performance companies, reached a stage in their development when core members no longer wanted to tour the work, largely due to family commitments (strictly speaking this occurred at the end of the ’80s). How could they bring in new people, andunder what terms? The People Show dealt with this by handing the company over to new artists to make shows under their name, with their guidance (to some degree) and with their resources. This was a truly honourable decision, in keeping with the core ethos of the company, but resulted in showsof varying quality. IOU retained their ‘house style’, fiercely guarded by founder member David Wheeler (whose assumption of the role of artistic director has drawn some bitter criticism from the other founding members). Later, Forced Entertainment found themselves in a similar position. On seeing their first show with performers outside of the core company, I felt that the new people were actually doing impressions of Terry, Richard etc.There seemed to be no room for them to do anything else without shattering the aesthetic of a company identified by its collective style. In time, this has developed, and all of the above companies have now readjusted to their expanded forces and fully embraced the participation of new artists. But it posed a curious question as to how co-operative companies can evolve past the structures that fell in to place when everyone was free, single, skint and up for anything.

The New Collaborations fund
In around 1992 the Arts Council started to talk about ‘inter-disciplinary’ performance, and created the New Collaborations fund. You could make any old performance you fancied as long as it was in collaboration with a furniture maker, an astronomer, a bell manufacturer, a farmer, a wizard, anything except another artist. Still, a lot of people leapt at the chance to receive money from and be identified by this new fund that at least seemed to recognise the work we were making – theatre companies who used dance, music ensembles who used theatre.
However, there was a hidden danger in distancing ourselves from the category of drama. For a start, that’s where all the big money was, the new fund was inevitably tiny. Secondly, we were marginalising ourselves again as weirdos doing something unclassifiable on the fringes that had nothing to do with the great traditions of British drama – playwrights, actors and plays.
New Collaborations was symptomatic of the relentless pressure on theatre makers in the ’90s to innovate formally, above all else. I remember David Wheeler of IOU Theatre (who, as a company founded by visual artists and musicians, may talk about sets and props, but will never discuss acting, character-motivation, dialogue or narrative) saying: “It seems strange for us to talk about being an ‘experimental’ theatre company now. We’ve found the vocabulary that works for us [as a visual artist might choose a specific medium or set of thematic concerns] and that’s how we make our shows. We’re not ‘experimenting’ any more, we’re making work.”
The logical conclusion of this imperative would appear to be what we have now: an unconditional love of site-specific work. Doesn’t matter if you’re doing ‘Look Back in Anger’ or ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ as long as you’re doing it in a lift, on an oil rig, as physical theatre, in a park, in a church, or in your nan’s garden. Why are audience and funders afraid of the theatre? They obviously think they’re going to be bored or embarrassed in a theatre. Why? What’s the appeal of the conventional text in these much looser settings? Do people hope that the audience/performer relationship will be more exciting, or, conversely, less intense than in the theatre?

David Edgar’s playwrighting survey
David Edgar sent out a questionnaire in 1993. I was sharing a room in James and Graeme’s onion-skin be-sprinkled house in Ombersley Road at thetime, while we attempted to make ‘Canute the King’ on a diet of Pillsbury apple turn-overs that came free with the Evening Mail (another story), so it must have been 1993. He was asking theatre companies whether they used a writer in their work. James conscientiously replied, enthusiastically explaining how his writing worked in the context of Stan’s Cafe – as a starting point or in response to improvisation, as poetry. We felt excited to have a chance to explain to the eminent David Edgar how our theatre worked. Weeks later, an article appeared in the Observer (it could have been the Guardian, and although I haven’t been able to confirm this, I think the article was by Edgar): “British theatre is going down the drain because no one is writing plays.”

Forced Entertainment lost their funding
When Forced Entertainment looked like they were going to be refused further funding in the mid 1990s, we all wrote to the Arts Council in the strongest possible terms. One theory behind the cut, was that Forced Entertainment, as a theatre co-operative, failed to appease the growing panic from the likes of David Edgar that British theatre was shrivelling up due to the lack of writers and directors. Insiders knew that FE actually had a very talented performance writer in Tim Etchells, and a team that were able to co-direct and act fantastically, but you couldn’t point to any traditional theatrical roles.

Does today’s loss of the co-operative matter? Probably not. I would suggest that the structures that have evolved in Stan’s Cafe, for example, are simply solidifications of the structures that have always been there. On a personal note, however, it probably has changed my job somewhat. In Stan’s Cafe, I had a conversation with James in 1995, following ‘Voodoo City’, about assuming a more formal directorial role, which would quite rightly mean also contributing to the admin and the daily grind of running a partially funded theatre company. I declined – I was more interested in keeping my options open and being able to make shows with other companies, such as IOU and Insomniac. It didn’t really seem that urgent an issue to me, as there was an understanding that companies like Forced Entertainment and Stan’s Cafe made shows as a group, so I assumed I would always be regarded as a theatre maker, not ‘just an actor’. As it turns out, when I work with a company now I’m still expected to devise/improvise/write a reasonable amount of material, but within much tighter confines. Companies have to tell the Arts Council exactly what they’re setting out to do, so the creative process in the rehearsal room is naturally reigned in. Furthermore ‘devised by the company’ is a programme note that directors feel a lot less comfortable with. Not only do they have their own reputation as directors or writers to protect with the Arts Council, but the notion of a devising company is a dinosaur in practical terms – impossible to fund or organise.

Pete Brooks fucked it up
Pete Brooks is the missing link in British theatre, and I don’t just mean biologically. Fiercely intelligent, roots totally in theatre, literature and philosophy, a founding member of Impact Theatre Co-op and director of Insomniac Productions, he made beautiful, funny, sometimes terrifying showsthat broke boundaries while still defining their terms as theatrical. Unfortunately, where money was concerned he was a total mentalist (admittedly usually due to trying to stage shows with budgets way below requirement – we know for a fact he wasn’t spending the money on clothes and haircuts), and Insomniac collapsed in the late 1990s. Pete’s now a senior lecturer in scenography at St Martins, but his work thrilled a wide spectrum of audiences and it should have been the way in to the National for all of us.
Devising note (undermining that rather florid declaration): like many of us, Pete was so entrenched in the mechanics of making work on the margins, that when Insomniac were given generous funding and a classic text (for ‘If We Shadows’ in 1994) he went in to a sort of creative tail-spin and the rehearsal process was one of the most stunted I’ve been in. We just didn’t know what to do with the time. Give him two days, a cast of students and a bottle of tequila, he’d make you a work of genius.

The ICA stopped programming theatre
Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s the ICA in London was at the heart of everything exciting in experimental theatre and performance. While I hated its crappy bar and pretentious box-office staff, it’s where I met friends, argued about work, and saw (and sometimes performed in) what I still regard as seminal performances by Insomniac, Glee Club, Ron Vawter, Forced Entertainment, Station House, Annie Griffin – actually I was there every other week so I won’t continue with this list. But by the end of the ’90s the ICA obviously felt that theatre had lost its relevance, and turned its attention to digital art and other media. This seemed to reflect the booming reputation of Brit Art and the opening of Tate Modern. Interestingly, at this time Nicolas Bourriaud wrote ‘Relational Aesthetics’ (1998) and visual artists started to concern themselves with the ‘dehumanising’ effects of digital technologies, leading them to direct interactions with their audiences in contexts that were – well – quite like performance.

Stan’s Cafe started making shows for non-theatre spaces
After ‘Simple Maths’ in 1997, we lost our funding. I buggered off to Brighton and worked for the Grove Dictionary of Music a lot, James had to give up mackerel and live off just sprouts, and do a lot of teaching I think. Don’t even ask what happened to Craig. In 1998 we made ‘It’s Your Film’, with a rather devil-may-care attitude, for £500 and one night of shows at the Bond Gallery. Just like in the ‘old days’, the set was made from bits of furniture out of James’s bedroom. It was a big hit, and enabled us to tour Britain and then to some extremely prestigious festivals abroad, some of them in cities with great beaches and a lively salsa tradition. After that, James, Craig and Mark Anderson put ‘The Black Maze’ on the road to similar acclaim, and now ‘Of All the People In All The World’ has gone ballistically global. Although I could make a good case for the use of fragmented narrative and narrative fragments in these works that is totally in line with Stan’s Cafe stage shows, none of these pieces require a theatre (and none of them rely on a classic text to get the punters in: see above). We’re still making theatre shows, but to be honest the feeling is akin to how a contemporary composer feels when commissioned to write an opera. You long to do it because it throws you back on to all of the fundamentals about your art form that excited you in the first place, with all the resources required to push the boat out technically and dramatically, but you know it will hardly ever be performed. Too expensive, too risky for the audience. If they go to see an opera, they’d rather see ‘The Magic Flute’, if they’re going to the theatre they’d rather see a playwright they know (you win David Edgar). Stage ‘The Magic Flute’ or ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in your nan’s garden, you’ll be beating them off with a stick.

So what, if anything, has changed? The predominance of site-specific work occupying the space that used to belong to experimental theatre for a start.It’s as though the audiences who walked away from avant-garde work in the theatres in the ’90s have walked towards non-theatre spaces to see conventional drama. For me, although enjoyable, much of this work is the theatrical equivalent of a trip to the fair.Instead of wanting to challenge or unsettle audiences, theatre-makers and funders want to seduce them, give them a good night out, keep them coming.I saw two shows at BAC in May of this year. Lone Twin presented a charming, quite dark story in a formally unusual way, with songs and dances to keep the audience on side. It reminded me – and I mean this in a good way – of some of the really excellent children’s theatre I’ve seen in the past few years. In the space next door, David Gale’s ‘Vanity Play’ which raised questions about authorship, fictional truth, and savagely satirised contemporary ‘life-style’ culture, seemed to belong to a different age. Interestingly, Lone Twin’s ‘Alice Bell’ is still on tour, while promoters won’t give ‘Vanity Play’ a gig. It’s as if the contemporary theatre world is apologising to audiences for the weirdness of the ’80s and ’90s. Sorry about that, please come back and we promise you’ll have a nice time. You can’t make work like that can you? And still hope to be taken seriously as an art form? Perhaps we’re afraid that if they leave us again, they may never come back.

Amanda Hadingue February 2007