Thursday, May 31, 2007

story, characters, and all that other bourgeois reactionary shit

Every now and again someone says something that you've been thinking and saying for ages, but does so so much better than you ever put it that you feel a rather silly and not a little shamed that you thought you were being so clever. This from Chris Goode's blog:

"I'm not one of those hairshirt experimentalists who despises story or disagrees with the fundamental importance of narrative to our lives and behaviours and relationships: but I think the idea that a theatre piece ought to tell a story is basically misguided. As human beings we don't experience stories. We experience ideas, images, moments, indications, and we sort through them using a bunch of different ordering and mnemonic technologies, of which narrative is one of the strongest and most effective. It's important that we tell stories to each other, and some of the fragments that come to us in our experience will of course be other people's stories, and that's important too. But for story to be meaningful, we have to order -- in other words, to author -- it for ourselves. "


It seems to me that this simple fact is little understood in the theatre. I think some of my best work has rested on a fairly solid foundation of straight-down-the-line storytelling (which in turn has rested on the skills and commitment of some of the fantastic actors I have been lucky enough to work with). I'm thinking in particular of when I directed Enda Walsh's bedbound and Disco Pigs. But in order to make the storytelleryness of these pieces work, we never, as far as I can remember, talked about story. Our job is to make each moment work in and of itself. The audience does the job of turning this into a story. Theatre, even a theatre of storytelling, does not trade in stories. It trades in experience, in sensations. Moments, feelings, and actions must be constantly given concrete form. The human brain's remarkable capacity for narrativising can then kick in - even something as abstract as a particular curve in an arm can be assigned its place in a story. It's remarkable the way people's understanding of the collective experience diverges once they start talking about what they understood to be happening after a show, even a successful one. "I thought X did Y because of Z", "really? I thought they didn't do Y, they did A". And yet they all laughed at the same points, and they all sat in the same awed silence through the same passages. This is not a function of failed communication, but of the fact that theatre is not a medium of communication of anything other than itself. It is most especially not the medium of communication of narrative, because narrative is nothing more than a way of relating things to each other - threading them temporally and, often, causally.

One interesting thing about the narrative urge is how totalising it is. It is always possible for a narrative to absorb any act or sequence of acts, even if that act or that sequence is explicitly attempting to escape being seen as either a part of a narrative or a narrative in itself. "And then I went to see an arty play that didn't make sense and didn't have a story" is a sentence which imposes both a sense and a story onto its object. It is significant that the sense and the story here can be very different from the actual thing itself without being in any way untrue, but still never being fully true.

Another interesting thing about the narrative urge is the hostility that things which resist it can provoke. (This resistance is, of course, both futile and vital. Futile because narrative can and will always reassert itself. Vital because it foregrounds the moment at which the experience is an experience, not the representation of an experience or the memory of an experience - a piece of data which can and will always be interpreted and manipulated. In short it foregrounds the liveness, the theatricality of theatre. It is the point at which theatre is most itself.) Perhaps because most dramatic forms we encounter are very deliberately asking us to see them as complete narrative units (the exception, obviously, being the Teletubbies), we find this by far the easiest way to see things. And things we are used to make us feel comfortable, things we aren't used to, don't. I often wonder what the results might be if you brought up a child exposing them to language only through the late prose and poetry of Samuel Beckett. Would the logic of connections between words and things in Beckett come to seem intuitive to them, and the logic of narrative connections in, say, Eastenders provoke the kind of hostility and derision that, even now, someone like Beckett can provoke? I say often - I lie. I suppose he'd probably end up writing Mills and Boon novels or something. Anyway...

I suppose there are two conclusions that I would draw from this - one, that it is possible, but very difficult, to create work which, whilst it cannot escape narrative, can at least wriggle into the cracks in the logic of the totalising narrative urge. Clowns, for example, are useful for this, because they don't respect the logic of anything, so as soon as something starts looking like a story, you'll probably find your somewhere else entirely. This kind of work is important in theatre because it creates an experience which is uniquely theatrical. The other is that once the performance has become data in the hands of the heads of the audience, it is beyond your control as an artist. All you can do is make every moment as real, as concrete, and as powerful as possible - it simply isn't possible (or desirable) to control how the individual members of the audience put these things together. This isn't to say that as artists we should reject responsibility for the meaning of our work (although I'm not convinced that this isn't a reasonable position to take.) (Actually, scratch that - I am.) but that, once acted, the action no longer belongs to us.

I think similarly about character. Character is something created by the audience by judging the actions of an actor and pretending that they're a person (by which I don't mean that actors aren't people - although you do sometimes wonder - but that the audience pretends that they are a person distinct from the person who is an actor. Oh, you know what I mean.) I am deeply suspicious about any process which involves asking questions about character, and I try to avoid talking about it with performers. When I decide whether I want a cup of tea or coffee, I do not do so with reference to my character (thinks - would my character take sugar? yes, i think my character has a sweet tooth), but with reference to whether or not I want a cup of tea or coffee. An actor playing me would not need to think about my character, but simply to discover a desire for coffee, or, better yet, a particular flavour of desire for coffee.

Anyway, that's all for now folks. At some point we'll see if my character is sufficiently organised to actually write up his argument for why Pirates of the Caribbean 3 is the most subversive film of the decade, but until then, my character wants a cup of coffee and is going to have one because my character is the kind of person who knows what he wants and won't let anything stand in his way.

[update] I've just realised I meant to say something else about all this, and that I forgot. One thing that consistently frustrates me is the way reviews seem to contain as standard a synopsis of the narrative as though that were explanation enough of what the performance was like. The actual story that needs to be relayed is the story of the theatrical experience, and that is so rarely present in theatre reviews that it's incredibly disheartening. And by this I mean we need much more than an evaluation of the quality of the acting in a cursory final paragraph - we need a desciption of what it was actually like to be sitting in that room in the presence of those other people. Sadly, I think that very few critics have either the desire or the vocabulary to provide us with this.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

half a thought about half a film...

In the last few days I've seen The Nic Hytner directed film of Alan Bennett's The History Boys, at least some of it, and the largely derided Pirates of The Carribean: At World's End, the third part in the trilogy, and probably the most subversive film of the decade so far. Hopefully I'll get round to writing up the scientific proof of the latter statement soon, but i wanted to splurge something out about the Bennett first...

I know it's bad form to bad mouth a bad film when you haven't seen all of bad it, and I reckon anyone that knows me wouldn't exactly be surprised that I didn't like it, but it warrants mention because its more than just something I don't like, it's something that's actively bad and is part of a larger, deeply pernicious, movement in both our cultural and political life, and because it raises some interesting questions about the relationship between a text and its medium.

THB rests its appeal on a nostalgia for something that never existed. The 80s boys' school in which the titular boys and their teachers do their education is a kind of incessently and aggressively charming ideal of Englishness as manifested in liberal poshness. If it was a person, it would think it was Stephen Fry. But it wouldn't be.

This is a world without bullying, in which the trauma of adolescence goes no further than being a bit sad that you fancy someone who doesn't fancy you back. Oh yeah, and it's a world without bullying. At a school. In the 80s. Where people are pretty open about their homosexuality. And there's no bullying. And no one feels the pressure or stress of work even though they're all trying for oxbridge. And there's no bullying.

The problem isn't so much that the film is unrealistic, but that it relies on your acceptance of its world not as a an explicit fantasy, but as a moment in a vaguely defined past - both your own past (school days, best of your life, etc etc) and the country's (When I Were a Lad This Were Nowt But Posh Schools). The rampant liberalism of the pupils might, at a push, feel reasonablish were the film set now, but of course the film can't be set now, because it specifically wants to avoid talking about now, because it wants to take you away to a world of notnow, a world of used to in which things were better and there was a sense of fairplay and decency. And whether or not you care for it seems to me to rest on whether or not you want to go there, whether or not your prepared to buy into it. Of course, kids always used to be better behaved, and the world has always been going to shit, but it's a necessary assumption of a particular kind of of conservatism that things only really started to get bad recently, and that the recent past is a foreign country in which you can and should have a pleasant holiday in order to build up your contempt for the modern and specifically the modern and young.

Of course, the film has been less feted than the play on which it is based - a play I haven't seen, but that's not going to stop me making wild assumptions. I'd imagine that they managed to get away with this in the theatre, and I do mean get away with it. The camera has a particular way of looking which the spectator in the theatre doesn't, and which, it seems to me, can expose evasions, faults and inadequacies which might not be evident on the stage. For one thing, location in film is detailed and specific, in theatre the specific and detailed location is the here and now that you're in. So I would expect that the film makes it feel very much more like we are supposed to be recognising 1983, and that there is very much more to recognise. A realistic visual film language makes you relate to the text (by which I mean both the spoken word and the action) very differently when compared to a realistic (or more usually a neo-brecthian/realistic-minimalist) visual language in theatre. (Which reminds me that I ought to go back to Raymond Williams' excellent Text and Performance someday soon.) Patrick Marber's Closer is another filmed play that suffers in this way. Sometimes, it seems, you just can't say those words on film without looking like a cock. And maybe you can in the theatre. In some cases i suspect this is to do with the language having an irreducible theatricality. In some cases (and i think THB falls into this category) the theatricality masks or partially masks the flaws, or at least makes them seem insignificant. I guess I need to think about what this means for a theatre maker. Can film point out the dishonesty in our art, and help us find a language which avoids these evasions?

For all of this, I very much prefer the way of looking (hearing, seeing, feeling, experiencing) that the theatre offers, not because it is partial (film of course, is partial in its own ways, and dishonest in its own ways too), but because of the possibility of reaching a point where evasion and dishonesty is no longer an option, where what you are seeing no longer partial because it is what is actually there.

Friday, May 25, 2007

You had me at hello...


You're looking well.

Shall we begin? oooh, lets!

To begin at the beginning, I want to think about influences, and to remind myself that I have them, and that these are the things that can inspire, feed and nourish you. If you're gonna be any kind of artist, I guess that these things need to keep a pretty much permanent place somewhere in your mind. Or on your blog. So none of this is going to sound particularly clever, and it's not an argument for anything, more a public note to self: remember this stuff matters.

So, to begin the beginning at the beginning - the Manics. I mean, yes, they're shit now, but you don't get to be that good in that way for very long. And of course that's kind of the point. What I take from the Manics is, well, number one - you live your art. The aim has to be to be an artist every minute of every day. Stay beautiful.

Of course, this has to be accompanied by a violent rejection of, y'know, all the shit. All the things which aren't beautiful, all the things that are actively anti-beautiful, Death Sentence Heritage etc etc. This is there in, i'd guess, 80% of great art, 90% of things I like, and 100% of rocknroll worthy of the name.

Of course, all of this is fantastically pretentious, but frankly, that's culture for you. Even shit culture is pretentious when compared to the vast majority of the vast majority of people's lives. I think the scale goes something like Hunter/Gathering --->Typing Things Into Spreadsheets ---> Eastenders ---> The Manics. If there's one thing the Manics have taught me, it's that pretension is a good thing. It's really just an arty way of saying "ideas above your station", and if you never have any ideas above your station, how are you going to end up above your station? Quite.

What this also means, is that if you want to be a rock star, you just act like a rock star. Everyone should be a rock star. The world would be a significantly better place if we were all rock stars. And this is a much more exciting version of egalitarianism than a dourly conservative reduction of everything to the mean. Just make everything better than the mean. Simple.

The other major contribution they make to my thinking is the understanding that, in a world in which the marketing and image of any artist are constructed to sell and comodify, turning the artist into something less than an artist and the art into something less than art, there is an alternative defence strategy to wilful obscurity and holier than thou DIY purity; there can be art in the image. Of course, this is easiest achieved if you're a rock star, relating to your audience in a number of possible ways (through the radio, through interviews, through TV, through recorded music, through live performance, through publicity photos which are often as meaningful and iconic as the music itself). But it's a truth that ought to be universally acknowledged, that artists of all hues used to know this, at least, all of the ones who realised that writing manifestos is cool. If I can figure out how this (lord, how any of this) works in relation to my production of After Miss Julie, I'll let you know.

The Manics led to Ginsberg, which led to Blake, and if there's every been a reminder that, no matter how bat-shit crazy what you're doing is, do it with enough rigour and y'know, it'll work, then it's Blake with his invented mythologies and theologies and his absolute refusal to see the world in either reductively materialist or airily ideological terms. Nice one Bill.

Theatre-wise John Wright is a constant source of inspiration with his serious commitment to the discipline of play, and Chris Goode strikes me as exactly the kind of person that more people ought to be, with a seriously thoughtful engagement with the possibilities of theatre (those possibiliies, of course, being more 99 times more than what 99% of people think theatre to be). And it's easy to forget nowadays, but there was a real radicalism and drive and about Peter Brook, and I really really must re-read The Empty Space, which was so exciting and eye-opening when I first came across it.

Brecht, of course, was a genius, whose reputation is being ruined by the fact that pretty much no one seems to understand him. He was a Marxist, and he thought damn hard about what it meant to be a Marxist and a theatre maker. The result was not only his own aesthetic, which has been pretty much absorbed into mainstream theatrical culture, shorn of the ideology from which it sprang and consequently become little more than a set of empty conventions, but also a new conception of theatre in terms of the way the action unfolds and the way we relate to that action. He deserves a post of his own, if not a whole series of posts, if not, y'know, a whole series of posts on a blog, and, maybe, some productions of his plays. For now it's enough to say that I really believe that he needs to be rediscovered as a radical, and that this will necessitate the discovery of a new aesthetic which takes into account the fact that the Marxist theory that Brecht was using has been superseded by important developments from the likes Frederick Jameson. And that's a big old project, but a necessary one in an era when the idea of political theatre has become so widespread and simultaneously so lazily unthought out.

I'm sure I'll think of other people I really ought to remind myself of soon, so I'm sure there'll be more where this came from, but for the time being, I guess that'll have to do. Do come again...