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.


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