Saturday, January 28, 2006

History in the making?

New writing is a pet project of mine. Part of my job is to keep a pulse on movements and trends in the literary sphere, and encourage the development of innovative new work. Selfishly, I'll admit that part of my interest lies squarely in the fact that I'm bored by a lot of what is out there. Or perhaps, more idealistically, the incredible minds ARE out there writing plays, and I just haven't found them yet. Well, I've found three: David Gregg, Colleen Campbell, and Clare Pophale. Remember those names; once these three hit their stride, they are going to be amazing. I hope you're all happily awaiting our foray into verbatim theatre, to be premiered early this summer. Writers are curious creatures. They have to be coaxed; you have to gain their trust. As one of Dietz's characters in Fiction once said, writers don't like to write, they like to have written.

With that in mind, I've been ushered in the direction of the Royal Court Theatre, whose tradition of new writing is in its 50th year. This is where Osborne's legendary Look Back in Anger was first staged (1956). The current celebration is stretching over the next few months as well, with rehearsed readings of contemporary memorables and new productions staged. Today, I found myself the happy recipient of a 10p standing ticket, which was upgraded to circle seating. Take advantage of those matinees, I tell you! Most London theatres do two shows on Saturday.

Stella Feehily's O Go My Man turned out to be a pleasant, if fragmented, peek into the state of new writing. Directed by Max Stafford-Clark, I was expecting big things. I hear his name often, tossed about by schoolmates as if he were Christ himself. That happens to me quite a bit here, as I find my footing in an entirely different theatrical environment. On the upside, I have very few preconceptions of my own, and shows that would otherwise be hyped have no special importance to me--a foreigner with the lovely chance to make her own judgments. There were bits of the script that stood out, rhythmically and dramatically fluent, while others fell into a more common tone. And while the storyline grew convoluted and unsure, I was fighting for a way in; whose story was this? I can't help but think that O Go My Man is a beautiful play waiting to be liberated from its trappings by the swift and effective hand of a dramaturg or editor.

O Go My Man continues through February 11, in the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs at the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Howard Barker on a Tangent

I love libraries. (Incidentally, however, I tend to hate academics. Nick says it is a necessary evil and that I have to maintain one foot in the world of academia, and the other in the rehearsal room). In the University of London's Senate House Library, I've often found myself overcome by the sheer possibilities. The shelves just speak of all the beautiful things I do not know. The smell of books intoxicates me. The objects themselves are treasures; I prefer to own them, so I can write my name in the back cover, make notes in the margins, and dog-ear each page. I see that as the mark of a book well-loved, like an ancient teddy bear missing an eye and a few patches of hair.

On this particular occasion, I was continuing my quest to discover the direction of contemporary playwriting. For anyone who doesn't know, I'm working with the three MATP writers as research toward that goal. Only problem is, the supporting literature for modern drama stops at about the year 2000, right after Kane and Ravenhill shook things up. Please, if you have any intriguing leads, let me know.

What was the point of this? Ah, yes, I was about to tell you that I discovered a glossy new book: Death, the One and the Art of the Theatre by Howard Barker.

Having just read his play Victory, my interest was piqued. It seems this is the logical follow-up to Arguments for a Theatre. Poor Howard, though. For all of us, from Artaud and Craig through today, who dream of that vague, fantastic, and unprecedented new theatre, he is speaking out. It's always frustrating to realize that audience don't necessarily care about the Art of the Theatre as we do, this child we have created in our minds, just out of reach...

This is an excerpt of the book, which is written thusly, in small sections of philosophical thought and theory, all aimed to defend what is sacred in theatre:

"The theatre thus: 'let us describe what the audience feels. It will thank us for it.' The art of theatre thus: 'let us describe what the audience does not know it feels. So what if it reviles us for it?'

Perhaps disturbing at points, he carries us into the heart of the art of theatre: death, and our human obsession with it. Certainly an interesting approach. I get the impression that he says the things others are thinking, but they are too frightened by the status quo to speak out.

As I read Dominic Dromgoole's The Full Room: An A-Z of Contemporary Playwriting (I've discovered in Dominic Dromgoole my theatrical kindred spirit. His careful explanations of modern theatre and its creators are grounded in real experience and expertly related to the canon at large. I'm letting him hold my hand through the rough spots.), I learned that Barker is no stranger to controversy. "The audience is sick", he said.

Dromgoole himself goes on to ask, "If we love good work, rigorous work, demanding work, provocative work, pure work, then why does it always empty the houses? If audiences are upset by moments of truth and honesty, and love charm and manipulation, what does that say about them? If they prefer last year's tricks to genuine imagination, conservative comfort to hard questions, or unambitious achievement to wild ambition, then how should we respond?"

Both books are available on Amazon. Check them out. I'm anxious to find some answers.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Absence and Presence

Andrew Dawson at the London International Mime Festival, ICA

For a long time, I have been searching for that one performance that would reinvigorate my appreciation for theatre. I see so much mediocre Shakespeare, fledgling collaboration, and pseudo-performance art, that I often find myself fatigued by being an audience member. I'm usually keen to give each piece a judgment on the basis of its own merits, taking into account things like time, incomplete/uneven talent in a cast, or weaknesses in writing. All in all, I'm too forgiving.

Andrew Dawson didn't need my forgiveness.

Perhaps I'm swayed by the sheer emotion of my experience while viewing this piece; I'll admit that I cried quite a bit. However, my emotional indulgence is beside the point. In telling the tale of his father's death, he has told the tale of himself, and their relationship. Dawson has woven together a show that is subtle and honest, one that surpasses its own subject material. Here is a case where mixed media has a place intrinsic to the show. His physicalities were enchanting, but they also comprised huges portions of the script where words would never have fit. I'll stop raving here. I usually find glowing reviews to be tedious...

In any case, I overheard some spectators in the lobby after my transcendent experience, decrying his efforts as 'drama therapy'. They felt manipulated, because the subject matter was too universal: everyone has lost someone they love. Normally, I might agree; I've seen enough people masturbating themselves onstage in my day. But that doesn't fit this circumstance.

This very easily could have become a horrible, heavy-handed wank, So what keeps it from being gauche?
When it comes down to it, the show isn’t about his father dying. It’s not even about death, but rather life.

How do we negotiate those memories, those insufficient moments that meant nothing on their own, into a tapestry of life and our relationships?