A paper given to Students at De Montfort University, Leicester
Theatre is indestructible, it will out. When the floods rise, when no one can go outside, when the electricity’s cut, we’ll all still be able to goon around in front of our mates.
On graduation the choice for me was stark, years making tea for arrogant coke heads, dreaming of getting to make a pop promo, begging and borrowing to make a throw away joke on Super16 film stock or immediately start rehearsing Memoirs Of An Amnesiac (1992), a theatre show about obsession, identity, biography, hero worship and the life of Erik Satie with my mate Graeme in the spare room of a rented house in Balsall Heath, Birmingham. In one form you may get the fleeting attention of thousands of people for a couple of minutes amidst TV’s Total Flow, in the other you have seventy minutes shut in a room with a few intimates. There was no choice, theatre’s a can do form, you need nothing, you can do it, it will materialise before your eyes, you can do it, people will be moved, you can do it; so let’s get it on. I’m not claiming any moral right for theatre to exist, it doesn’t deserve any mystical special privileges, but like music and visual art, it won’t die.
So there’s my first point. The future of theatre?
There is one.
Why do I even feel it necessary to state that point? Well, there’s doom being mongered on all sides and it’s hard work out there. In the nine years Stan’s Cafe has been running the opportunities for presenting alternative theatre have contracted markedly. There is a vision aboard of theatre being strangled by the intense competition for people’s leisure time and disposable income. There is a notion that theatre is suiciding itself by clinging to the corpse of a sinking repertoire. This is not an unusual situation. Throughout history new forms of art have appeared alongside existing forms. Painting didn’t die with photography, novels and theatre have survived the birth of film, film survived the birth of television. Through all this they’ve kept making opera and ballet so how can theatre die? As each new form develops so existing forms are forced to embrace them and adjust to the changes they make to our perception of the world.
TV is in crisis. Their market is fragmenting. I remember when there were only threeTV channels and no one had a VCR, when the lead singer of Cameo appeared on Top Of The Pops wearing a red cod piece, the next morning the playground was agog, everyone in the entire school had been watching. Now we are not bonded together with these shared, all be it private, experiences. TV is having to adjust to that explore new forms, new modes of working, look to its values, reinvent itself. Theatre too is having to adjustitself to recent leaps of technology and changes in society. Maybe the ‘being there together’quality of theatre will grow in value as we do so many more things apart.
Clearly there has been and continues to be a considerable degree of soul searching in Theatre. What do we do now everyone has so much entertainment at their fingertips at home? What do we do now everyone appears to want a slick and packaged product? There seem to be three courses of action.
The first course is already almost played out. Theatre cannot thrive by repeating ad nausiam the repertoire that has served it well in the past. Birmingham Rep has recently found that safebox office bankers are no longer safe. Pepping up this repertoire, as the West End is, with film adaptations or movie stars in old roles will only get theatre so far. It is eating it’s own tail, an activity that has its own appalling fascination, but ends in a form of Zeno annihilation.
We cannot move on by turning all to pap. Theatre is a demanding form. You have to be there. You have to get to the right place at the right time, with the right money, engage with it as it unfolds in its own time and is gone. You can’t pause it, record it, rewind it, make it louder, brighter, saturate the colours or immediately watch the sequel. If people have been to all that trouble and submitted to all these restrictions, you’ve got to give them some reward and this reward cannot be the result of lazy thinking, cliches and pap. Surely the audiences will resent making more effort than the production itself. Howard Barker’s Arguments For A Theatre is a great read if you’re in this mood to banish laziness. I don’t subscribe to his theories entirely, but he comes much closer than most.
The second course for the future of theatre is to take on the clothes of the challenging forms. “Kids go to the clubs not theatre, let’s play club music over our theatre shows”. “People like the TV, let’s make our theatre as much like the TV as possible”. “People like the internet, let’s make theatre stories about hackers”. If responses are this shallow they will not work, they are redressing the form not addressing the problem. Nothing is more embarrassing than the trendy vicar. Of course club culture, television and the internet will influence what we make but from the inside out not the outside in.
Ultimately the advent of these new forms will benefit theatre for it will force us to reappraise what forms the indissoluble heart of theatre. That much debated quality that makes good theatrea stunning experience. That quality whose flip side must be to make bad theatre unendurable. This quality must be wrapped up in it’s ‘liveness’, when it kicks off you’re there with it as part of it, when it’s shit there’s no where to hide.
This is a quality that applies beyond theatre into performance. On the rare occasions I go to a classical music concert I am always surprised at how much richer the experience is than listening to the same music on a CD. I dismissed stand up comedy on the evidence of my TV viewing, last week at a comedy club I understood properly for the first time how it is supposed to work. When on The Late Review they show clips of a play under discussion I have to hide behind the sofa because it looks so awkward. You have to be there.
Last month I was at Call and Response, a Live Aid style link up concert between Birmingham and Johannesburg. It was a hugely moving experience. “Hello Johannesburg”, “Hello Birmingham”, “Hello Johannesburg”, “Hello Birmingham”, we waved. New technology had made the thing possible and distance had appeared to collapse. The thing that I found so moving was as much that we were parted as that we were united. We could see their mediated image and voice but with a touch of delay and a physical absence.
Our third option is not to try and revive the old classic content or ape the new arrivals but that we remain true to the heart of theatre whilst living in and for today. In the wordsof old MU stickers and the fake drummer in our latest show, Good and True (2000), “Keep it Live”.
OK, here’s my grand unification theory. It’s not thought through, it’s a bit pat, but I like it, it serves my prejudices. Everything is Fashion. Clearly fashion is about fashion, but sometimes fashion is fashionable and some times it’s not. Football wasn’t fashionable, now it is. Galleries were unfashionable now they’re hip, hips weren’t fashionable now they are (or is that bellies). Maybe this is a post modern argument but I hope not because postmodernism is out.
In art, sponsorship was in, now partnership is in; numbers were in and still are but Cultural Indicators are coming up. It is becoming less about how many people you get in but what they get out of it, you will notice I have already alluded to this argument this evening, in talking about Theatre vs Television, an indication of how influencedby fashion I am, though you’ve probably all gathered that already [joke].
Theatre in Britain is out of fashion. Not only is it out of fashion culturally but it is out of fashion within theatre. Jonas Barish’s book The Antitheatrical Prejudice proposes that through history the form has, for various reasons, provoked intense external hostility. In his final chapter, citing Artaud amongst others, Barish notes that anti-theatricalism is rife within theatre. We could extend his chapter to explore the climate in Britain today. Why are theatre courses becoming performance courses? Why are theatre companies become performance companies? Why when the Arts Council invented a Combined Arts Department did so many people try and leave the drama department? There are good reasons for all these phenomena. The astute cultural analyst would say, “because new forms of expression are developing beyond existing art form boundaries”. The slack mouthed cynic would say “because theatre’s terminally out of fashion”. The diplomat may say ” because new forms of expression are developing and the term ‘theatre’ brings with it a lot of baggage”. Stan’s Cafe has never been fashionable. It is a theatre company. We make shows for small theatre spaces, pieces for the radio, installations and are currently organising a series of symposia, we do it all as a theatre company because our interest is always in the theatrical. As you can imagine, our definition of theatre is broad.
The Black Maze (2000), currently running at College Street, Nottingham as part of the Freefall and Now festivals, is an installation. Participants edge theirway alone through narrow, pitch black twisting corridors, encountering sounds, visions and tactilesensations. We regard this installation as a piece of theatre. The participants are both performers and audience, witnesses to their own drama. Here time is translated into distance with the corridorslaid out as introduction – crisis – struggle resolution and uplifting conclusion. Here is participative theatre, or performance. To the pensioners passing through it The Maze quotes an old house of fun and evokes memories of the blitz. To the young it is a computer quest game made manifest and fully immersive. You must discover hidden doors and face down demons in order to find the corridorfull of stars. If you are lost and cry out, the maze master will give you advice. The piece does not change, its performers / audience do. We sell the piece as an experience, not as anexercise in technology. It uses custom built electronics – samples, triggers and switches but we don’t mention these. People arrive without anoraks looking for a physically, emotionally and intellectually engaging experience. You could see it as part of a fashion for theatre artists working in installation, part of a move towards overt audience interaction if you wish, but Stan’s Cafe has always been interactive.
Simple Maths (1997) has no ‘touchy feely’, ‘call and response’ participation, it is not a pantomime (though there are no words). Five performers swap positions onsix chairs in a mathematical game of ordering. The text consists almost entirely of humdrum tics, postures and attitudes. There is no narrative beyond that which arises from the audience’s owninterpretation of the juxtapositions they are presented with on the stage and the psychology they bring with them into the theatre. Read by some as without generosity or substance, dull and unengaging, to others Simple Maths was massively generous, giving them huge spaces to inhabit, full of content and incident emotionally gripping and profoundly moving. The space for interactionis there but it is not forced.
Where Simple Maths required audiences to do their own editing as they tried to watch five people’s tiny gestures all at once, It’s Your Film (1998) was built so the performers had maximum editorial control. The audience enter a booth one at a time to watch a three minute performance through a small rectangular aperture. The piece looks like a film, by manipulating the audience’s restricted field of vision long shots, closeups, exteriors and interiors, dissolves and superpositions are all performed live. The effect however is startlingly theatrical. The audience are very conscious of being on their own in the presence of the piece, feelings of voyeurism accompany their viewing until, at the close of the piece, the performers engage the audience in eye contact, shattering the cinematic surface and placing them within both fictional and visual frames.
Obviously this talk is a huge exercise in self justification. I’m railing against fashion and gimmicks, but this is unfair. We show the touch of fashion, whilst never consciously chasing it and It’s Your Film is as open to the accusation of gimmickry as any in history, it’s a gimmick fest! Just as ‘fashion’ can carry derogatory connotations of superficiality so does gimmick. It’s Your Film is an easily grasped concept but it works as a piece of theatre, it is not a gimmick. It places all the usual demands on an audience and whilst some of the rewards are reduced (you only get three minutes) so others are increased. We are there performing live just for you, there are four of us, but if you’re not there it doesn’t happen. The booth is like a theatre pressure cooker, by imitating film it emphasises it’s own live status. It freaks people out more and more consistently than any other show I’ve been involved in because somehow it hones right in on some aspect of theatre that makes it special.
So, if theatre is so special, you may ask, why isn’t it more popular? Why isn’t it fashionable? Why are you here talking up it’s future? Well in simple terms, because most of it isn’t very good. Heather Maitland in her publication Is It Time For Plan B? argues that we shouldn’t sell new art in any different way to old art. We shouldn’t assume that the term New is universally regarded as a positive one. More pertinently to us in this context, she argues that when people say they don’t like new art what they are talking about isn’t new art but bad art. Hers is a controversial view but I’m inclined to agree with it, theatre is not unusual, most of anything isn’t any good. Theatre is just unusual in that, as I’ve pointed out, bad theatre is a deeply scarring experience and you can only see what’s currently available. You have to be there.
There’s been a great deal of awesome theatre made. I know, I’ve seen some of it, that’s why I believe, that’s why I’m doing it. I can’t show you the awesome stuff I’ve seen because it’s gone. You have to wait to see what comes to Phoenix, or travel to Nottingham, Birmingham, London,Holland, Germany, France, New York. I could recommend a company, then hope their new show is as good as the old one. However, if I wanted to share a great photo, film, novel, poem, piece of music with you it would be easier and if you didn’t like it you wouldn’t resent me for persuading you to try it.
It was, in part, in order to address this issue that in 1999 we restaged The Carrier Frequency, a show devised in 1984 by Impact Theatre Cooperative and the novelist Russell Hoban. This was a weird experience all round and proof that, whilst you lose much in context it is possible to revive old experimental work and still have it wow audiences, we could have toured the piece on and on, but where’s the fun in that?
What is the future of Stan’s Cafe then? Well it is as positive as you can imagine and it’s all in this three year business plan (currently an essential fashion item). We’ve learnt a lot, we’ve shown we have staying power. We have two shows we can zap out as soon as anyone produces a large enough cheque. Good and True has toured to favourable responses all round. We have three major new touringshow ideas set up and commissioning interest from three venues. We are a coherent unit, we work in a mixed economy.
Any management consultant would say, more Black Maze and franchise it, more It’s Your Film and franchise it. Both are easily stored, easily revived, generate great publicity, they’re easy to explain, they’re already made, one requires minimal labour, the other is labour intensive but anyone can perform it and it takes almost no rehearsing. Go Stan’s Cafe, coin it in. Invent more one on one or one on none events, sequels to these first two. Make that your speciality. They would say, look at your most obviously popular old shows, the funny ones with lots of energy, make more like that, make them with a small casts, so they’re cheap and the logistics of touring are easy.
Of course none of these things are in our plans. We will make what we want to make, what needs to be made next.
A sensible company would say move abroad, work abroad, only do London in Britain and then only if you can get a good venue. It’s great aboard, it’s an adventure, they pay you more, treat you better, they’re more interested in the work, the weather and traffic tend to be better, you meet other companies, get to see interesting work. The market is larger and it’s more fun.
We’d like to follow this route a certain distance. We can’t tailor our work for this end, we can’t second guess this market as we can’t second guess audiences responses. We don’t know whataudiences want, we wouldn’t deign to guess. Instead we stay true to ourselves and hope people follow us.
I.F. Clarke’s book
The Next Great War is a collection of historical speculations about future conflicts. It makes a great read, not just through the joy of hindsight but because of the picture it paints of the society in which the speculations were written. I am now going to fulfil my brief and speculate about the future of performance. No doubt these speculations will tell you more about me and today than they will about other people and tomorrow. Here we go.
- Theatre companies will come under the patronage of multinational corporations, performing specially commissioned plays to employees in head offices around the world.
- An advertising agency will purchase the Institute of Contemporary Arts and run it as an ideas farm, engaging experimental theatre companies to yield up their latest notions.
- Cameron Mackintosh Jnr. will buy up the copyright to old experimental theatre shows and franchise them out in repertoire around the world. Stan’s Cafe will be included with a show we are yet to make.
- We will have refused to sell the rights to It’s Your Film, Craig and I will perform a version running to fifteen minutes featuring zimmer frames.
- A host of companies run be retired people will make beautiful work that tours to large audiences of all ages.
- Anodyne, violent, prescriptive, VR scenario based chat rooms will be mainstream entertainment.
- Performance artists will have teamed up with beggars trying to raise the funds to appeal, under the newly adopted British Euro-Constitution, against their ban from performing in public places.
- Shakespeare will be performed, but only the popular ones and these with contemporary English surtitles.
- The standard of juggling will have improved but it will still be juggling and thus not worthy of attention.
- People will have found ways of using technology to give theatre the fluid spectacle of high definition VR or cinema.
- Theme parks will be commissioning live performance diversions that don’t require people to wear outsize foam rubber suits.
- Health and Safety requirements will have become so stringent and the risk of being sued so high that no one can afford to perform anything but gently moving non-controversial acts to an audience that has signed away its rights.
- The Sealed Knot society will turn pro and stage a host of historical events ranging from the parting of the Red Sea to the assassination of John Lennon.
- The lock ups round the corner from me will be appropriated for punk performance the like of which I can’t imagine.
- Some performer will crack media relations to the extent they become a household name for a year and sell out an entire tour. Unfortunately they won’t be any good at the art and so will not sell out the following year despite a major media hype. They will remerge in a real time Internet Soap the next year, but by then this will be a long played out and unfashionable form.
- Next year magic will be in.
- In ten years there will be purpose built holiday resorts full of theatres drawing clients from across the world.
- The Arts Council of England will be abolished with the arts placed under the Minister for Tourism.
- The Military will engage their own crack avant garde performance troupe, not to entertain the other troops but for reasons I am not at liberty to divulge.
- The theatre of the future will be about sex and death and made by you.
James Yarker 25.10.0
Barish, Jonas (1981) The Anti-Theatrical Prejudice, London: California University Press.
Barker, Howard (1993) Arguments for a Theatre, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Cameo, (1986) Word Up, record, Club JAB38.
Clarke, I.F. (ed.) (1995) The Tales of the Next Great War, 1871-1914, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.
Jameson, Fredric (1991) Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, London: Verso.
Maitland, Heather (2000) Is it Time for Plan B?, Cambridge: Arts Marketing Association.
Plant, Sadie (1993) ‘Building The Hacienda’ Hybrid. no.1, Feb-Mar.
Wyver, John (200) ‘Art And The New’, lecture, Future Art Symposia, Birmingham, 23 October.
Yarker, James (1999) ‘Presence and Absence: Electronic Mediation in Contemporary Theatre’, M.Phil. thesis, Lancaster: Theatre Studies, Lancaster University.