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Saturday, September 09, 2017

La Boheme at the Royal Opera House, London

One of the perks of knowing the right people is getting to see things that we couldn’t otherwise afford.  Yesterday we were privileged to see the open dress rehearsal of La Boheme at the Royal Opera House.  An Open DR is the last one before opening night and apart from some of the singers trying to conserve their voices and not singing out this was the production as you will see it from Monday.

La Boheme is the one art event where boxes of tissues are more in evidence than ice creams in the foyer.  It is a pretty simple love story.  Consumptive Girl meets boy who falls in love. Boy, afraid he is too poor to help pretends to be jealous and they part. Girl,  has a fling with rich viscount to pay the bills.  But dying, returns to boy and coughs her last in his arms.  On the way, we meet tarty girl who laughs at life and death.  And a bunch of arty youths trying to fend off starvation with a lot of banter. You probably know some of the tunes and the bit about “Your tiny hand is frozen.”  See, a surefire weepy.

The previous production had become a bit of a warhorse and had rumbled on for something like fifty years at the ROH so the time had come for something fresh and it’s this season’s hot ticket.

Except….   This production has gone out its way to disengage the audience.  The settings are bare and stark and rely on in vision scene shifting on the open stage that was popular in the 1980s.    I think that sensation of disengagement was most in evident with the harsh, flat lighting which made the first scene where the candle blows out and Mimi and Rudolfo are hunting for Mimi’s key in blank studio lighting, seemed perverse.  I even asked whether this was merely there for the cameras at this rehearsal but apparently not.  Allied to this there was some odd staging moments where the fourth wall seemed to appear and disappear at random moments and where, having established it at one point, the singers lined up and sang at it.  There was also an amount of cold-acting from all and sundry the like of which I haven’t seen since the last local production of “A Christmas Carol.”  Please movement directors have a look at how people actually move when they are cold and hungry.

I’m happy to say that there were one or two beautifully orchestrated stage pictures.  Particularly the street scenes with the chorus and youngsters and, most touching and perfect of Mimi and Rudolfo exiting through the snow storm at the end of Act 3.

But the end, sadly, not a moist eye in the house.  This was Boheme lite.  Boheme with nought percent emotional engagement.  Perhaps we were being shown some other aspect of La Boheme that has never been explored before.  But I fear I missed it.

Oh, the singing was nice. And Antonio Pappano and the pit band were working hard to give us a good show.   Definitely one to shut your eyes and hum along to.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Blood and Bones. Play writng in the 21st Century.

Blood and Bones Theatre

Theatre is the oldest expression of some of the deepest human instincts.  The playwright’s job is to establish the complex process of thought that leads to that expression.  Yet in the post-rational twenty-first century just when they’re needed, many of the enormous possibilities of drama have been lost to a welter of superficial acrobatics, music and visual effect while the actual skills of playwriting - character construction and dialogue and as a vehicle for understanding the fundamentals of human nature - have been downgraded such that the playwright him or herself is thought of as mere pen holder for other theatre makers. Playwrights are kept at arm’s length from the creative process by the dread shadow of The Dramaturg and the play reading committee.

This series is not a handy how-to-do-it guide but rather a personal meditation on the place of the playwright in contemporary theatre.   It suggests that if theatre is to survive it needs to re-engage with its audiences by offering something to challenge the immediate attraction of film, television and other narratives. It needs to find its soul again and offer what is its unique properties.  To do this it needs a powerful cohort of playwrights and it needs them once again at the heart of the playmaking process.  Playwrights like me need to stop titting around with ten minute sketches and applying cap in hand to futile competitions.  We need to be bolder, braver and prouder of what we do because I firmly believe we can contribute in some way to getting the world back to a more humane, rational way of progressing.

I am particularly fortunate in that I was able to learn my craft in what, with hindsight, appears to be a golden age of theatre.  I have had opportunities to work alongside great actors and within companies who believed in the essential power of drama. I have been able to learn from people who knew their craft and I hope I have been able to pass that on in writing workshops and as a director working with young and established actors to this day.

So, if you are a playwright, actor, director. Audience member or all round lover of theatre come with me on my ramble through my own head as I try to understand what it is I’ve been playing with for the last forty years

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Blood and Bones Theatre. Fairy Tales

Please let me know if you own this

Let’s talk about fairy stories.  Let me think about some of the narratives that others have created and which, I think need challenging. Later I’ll talk about how theatre should be involved in the process.  First, Let me map out some of the ways I think we are being diverted from the authentic, the plausible and the genuine and led into a sham world where issues are beyond our grasp. Let me, for an example, consider the plethora of conspiracy theories and hoaxes I see promoted on the Internet.  Why do we get so worked up about them?  These are flung about and consumed with the same zeal as Coca Cola and Macdonalds or Dom Perignon and Heston Blumental’s snail porage and with the same disregard to nutrition.  And despite any evidence to the contrary, conspiracy theorists will cling on to these ideas like drowning sailors to a piece of driftwood or politicians to their scrap of power so that no-one can prise their fingers therefrom.

Here’s a fairy story:  There was once a wicked witch in the West. Originally she was from the East where she had believed that everything that mattered could be weighed and measured and there was no need for any of the airy fairy flim flam that so many mortals worried about. But she had a rather beastly time in the East so she transported herself on her broomstick to the West where she developed a grudge against the gooey, sticky parts of mortal life that made her feel unhappy and she came to want to destroy everything that could not be weighed and measured.  She thought that everybody else should shut themselves in a cupboard and just go away. But nobody would listen to her silly ideas so she wrote all her grievances in a little book.   And then she died and with her last breath she cursed the world and wished that all mortals be turned to stone because in that way they could be weighed and measured. At first, anybody who read her book laughed at it because it was very silly and childish.  (And very badly written.) But one day some greedy and selfish crooks thought that they would do better out of the world if greed and selfishness were the made the things to be, so they took the wicked witch’s silly book and said to all their friends that this book had magic powers and would change the world as they wanted.  And gradually the book was passed around and, because these men said that the book was true.  Slowly, slowly, the magic spell began to work and a dark shadow was unleashed upon the whole world because everybody believed that this was true and, what’s more, how things had to be.  And faster and faster, all the good things that were in people’s hearts like love and friendship (because the wicked witch had said such things were unfeasibly gooey and sticky) were replaced by selfishness and greed and hate and fear and everybody felt unhappy but they didn’t know why.  And they began to blame everything that was good and speak out for the evil things that were now rampaging through the world even though they were making themselves more and more unhappy.  And one of these crooks whispered in the ear of another powerful witch from another country and she said that everything that had gone before was now to be forgotten and laughed at.  And so it was.  The darkness descended on the world like a thick choking fog.  And people had no way of defending themselves against it and they began to turn to stone because a stone is easily weighed and measured.

OK not a very good fairy story but the best I can do.  It’s here to illustrate the notion that ideas can be passed around and believed despite any evidence to the contrary.  This is called cognitive bias.  We are all cognitively biased one way or another.  There are many things we believe because… well, because we believe them.  And the unhappiness it causes is called cognitive dissonance.

If you haven’t guessed already, the originator of all this tale is Russian born pulp fiction writer, Ayn Rand.  In Ayn Rand’s grindingly awful world stability would be achieved by having no government and with all individuals concerned only with their own ends. Altruism would be discounted and only self-interest allowed. What is frightening is that her bonkers belief became widespread among people who became big players in Silicon Valley and, eventually, though Alan Greenspan right into the heart of US government where the ideas brought about the collapse of two world economies; that of South east Asia in the nineteen nineties and the whole western economy in 2008. We shudder at this nonsense, these bizarre ideas of individual isolation one from another which have so thoroughly soaked into contemporary society through the vectors of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher the latter who famously said “There is no such thing as society”. Yes, it’s true, she did actually say that in an interview with Women’s Own Magazine on 31st October 1987 and it was an idea directly channelled from Rand.

While these policies derived some intellectual underpinning from economists such as Friedman and Hayek, it was essentially Rand’s philosophy that was at the stony heart of the whole enterprise.

And when this philosophy was put into action it devolved power from governments to the banks.  And the banks had only one end in view – accumulating money. It was an extraordinary display of open and naked greed, a great slobbering banquet that continued for years until nearly every cupboard and fridge was empty whilst the rest of us looked on in horror.   This was Ayn Rand’s philosophy of self-interest written on a world scale.   And in the end it was the small person who was left with a monstrous bill for the beanfeast which he or she was absolutely and utterly unable to dispute. What’s more the small person was made to feel the guilty parties in this farrago.  We feel powerless before this swelling tide. We cannot cope so we turn our faces to the wall, reach for the remote control or pound, pound, pound mindlessly along the clifftop and in the end we do nothing at all about it.

“But, hey!  Hang about!”  Says Skidmore looking up from his drink..  “Here you are banging on about not believing in conspiracy theories of the world and you’ve just farted out one of the biggest.  The virtual collapse of Western Civilization brought about by a pulp fiction writer. How come you can believe in this and not the one about the moon-landings or whatever?”  Well, OK., Skidders.  You, of course, have me banged to rights.  That is my cognitive bias coming to the fore. Except that I would defend myself by saying that actually all of this is well known and documented.  The people involved are open and have discussed it.  They admit to it openly. The perpetrators speak freely about it with little remorse. The banks did a job and they got away with it, bonuses and all. So this is a conspiracy that is actually happening now and is a proud part of modern economics.

OK.  Here is another story and one I was involved in and know, hand on heart, to be true.

I was travelling by train down Italy and happened to share a compartment with a young Swedish guy.  He was affable and easy going but for some reason he felt compelled to show me the contents of his suitcase.  It was literally stuffed full of bank notes.  He happily explained how he had sold everything he owned and was taking the cash to join a group in Corfu, the then headquarters of the Scientology movement.  I knew nothing about Scientology and he persuaded me to meet up with him on the island and he would show me round.  As it turned out the headquarters was a large rusting hulk moored in the harbour.  The acolytes, having handed over all their worldly possessions were living and eating in communal dormitories in fairly Spartan conditions.  Nothing strange there.  There was any number of weird cults living communal lives at that time.  Except that the “Clears” the officers or priests or whatever they were, seemed to have a high old time frequenting the bars and taverns of the town and the founder of the cult, the science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard was living further down the quayside in a large white motor yacht draped with bikini-clad lovelies. Cognitive dissonance on the grandest of grandiose scales. I declined the opportunity to throw in my lot with them.

And the same applies to the Nigerian Princess scam and other hoaxes.  Apparently the far-fetched nature of the narrative is designed to eliminate all but the most gullible.  The scammers want to weed out anyone who might cause trouble but for the poor unfortunate who falls for the scheme they will be drawn gradually into a web of intrigue.  Once you have parted with your details, or even the thousand dollars the Princess needs to pay bribes, you are hooked and you will put aside your doubts because you are now afraid of losing your first investment or even from fear that you will be made to look stupid by not following up on the deal. The deeper in we get, the more we earnestly believe and the harder it is for rational thinking to apply.

And as I dig deeper into this morass I seem to see that what ties this all together and fuels its onward march is this disengagement I was talking about earlier.  Not only a disengagement from politics but from humanity itself.  All of these phenomena that I've touched on have their roots in a distancing from, not only the levers of power, but the actual machinery of common human existence.   The Conspiracy theorists, The Randists, the Scientologists, the Bankers, the Rhapsodists, the Capitalists and other hoaxers and scammers. Who can tell them apart?  They see a world so maddened that it can be driven for their own ends. And so they can disseminate their own stories, the conspiracies, the year zero, the religions, the accumulation of money - anything to give them some justification for their existence.  Their stories spread.  We desire an explanation for the entirely unearned misfortunes that befall us. It seems somehow easier to believe a complex lie than the simple truth. As Joseph Goebbels is often misquoted as saying in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily”. In other words “The bigger the lie, the easier it is to believe.”  Thus the welter of propaganda of the press and the internet is lapped up by people who feel they simply do not have the time or the resources to cut through to the truth. The stories become the narrative of a whole people and, as such, they become the truth of the politicians, the spiritual leaders, the wealthy that they can manipulate to maintain their status. 

"We were taught that we were being persecuted because we were God's chosen people and that the world outside didn't understand us," Anna Baron The Polygamists Daughter.

So, Skidmore,  I’m going to try to engage with the world and encourage all other artists to fill the gap that the media, both official and social, have left or have deliberately avoided.

Theatre is, and should be the art of engagement.  It is collaborative, social.  It contacts the deepest levels of human experience. But yet I know that if I try to use my playwriting to counteract this nonsense then I am in danger of losing my perspective.  My own cognitive bias will become only too apparent and that may not ultimately fit with the characters I portray.  What’s more a one sided polemic can only be as dull as ditchwater to an audience.  I must see and understand.  I must engage with my subject matter in a way that will allow my characters to speak with their own truth.  Above all I must let the audience engage with my characters and tease out a different narrative from the one they might have accepted up to that point.  But in order to do that, I must follow Nietzsche’s thinking and endeavour to understand myself first.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Chapter 2a) Belief, Bias and Common Humanity.  A meditation on playwriting in the Age of Untruth.  Apollo and Dionysius.

The authentic narrative is a sensory explosion occurring within an intellectual context.  We know it when we feel it as acutely as we feel a kick on the shins at a chess match.

So can theatre, the greatest illusion of all, articulate anything meaningful about combatting trickery and fraud?   In other words: is it possible to create a plausible, authentic narrative within all that fakery? I’m going to stick my neck right out here and say that is exactly what theatre it is for and what it was first invented to do. 

Playwrights control and guide the emotional journey.  The audience experiences something different from what they know, thereby empathising and understanding at a deep, visceral level.

I’ll come back to the mechanics of theatre and writing for it in a later chapter But I also want to explain how I feel theatre has become side-tracked away from its primary function.  The desire for an instant gratification has reduced many forms of theatre to spectacle.  Exciting and thrilling funny and even emotionally engaging it may be but in the end, hollow and without heart.  That is not to decry the theatre of spectacle but it loses so much more that it could be doing.  Theatre may not be able to change the world but it can certainly set out to engage and challenge.

At the core of live theatre experience is the fact that each performance is new and different.  No actor can reproduce the exact same circumstances of performance night after night.  He or she brings themselves to it with all their own foibles and disappointments.  And we all know that the audience is different performance by performance.  The reaction to the wild shamen on stage maybe quite different on a wet Thursday afternoon from a joyous Saturday night out.

The actor is key, he or she is living, breathing and sweating.  It is up to the playwright to give the actor the means to create that rank, odorific moment.  And the shape of the play provides the narrative underpinning that will make this more than a moment in time. Plays happen here and now right in front of and, perhaps, in and around the audience.  The actors are constructing and driving characters and their stories right in front of our eyes.  Plays happen to everyone in this room.

Peter Brook, in his seminal work “The Empty Space” decries a form of theatre he terms “Deadly Theatre”.   “A doctor can tell at once between the trace of life and the useless bag of bones that life has left; but we are less practised in observing how an idea, an attitude or a form can pass from the lively to the moribund. It is difficult to define but a child can smell it out.” 

Jerzy Grotowski when he talks about physical theatre, is not talking about empty acrobatics but in the direct, living engagement of the actor with the text.

“Why do we sacrifice so much energy to our art?

Not in order to teach others but to learn with them what our existence, our organism, our personal and repeatable experience have to give us; to learn to break down the barriers which surround us and to free ourselves from the breaks which hold us back, from the lies about ourselves which we manufacture daily for ourselves and for others; to destroy the limitations caused by our ignorance or lack of courage; in short, to fill the emptiness in us: to fulfill ourselves...art is a ripening, an evolution, an uplifting which enables us to emerge from darkness into a blaze of light.”
Jerzy Grotowski

Antonin Artaud when he describes a Theatre of Cruelty. “I would like to write a Book which would drive men mad, which would be like an open door leading them where they would never have consented to go, in short, a door that opens onto reality.”
Antonin Artaud, Selected Writings

These great thinkers about theatre are all trying to capture is the idea of Authenticity in performance and production. They want genuine commitment to the performance by performers and audiences alike. If a performance does not leave us shaking with emotion, angry, fearful, delighted, in love with the world, then it has failed.  Actor and audience alike should feel challenged, uplifted, crushed, beaten and absolutely shattered.  And, in that communion, a sense of well-being and grace.

On the other hand, apparently, the other great thinker about the role of theatre in the twentieth century, Berthold Brecht, propounded the idea of making the audience less engaged emotionally in a work by proposing an Epic Theatre that stripped the spectator of the need to identify emotionally with the characters or action before him or her.  He felt it should instead provoke rational self-reflection and a critical view of the action on the stage He was concerned that emotional engagement engendered complacency in his audience and he employed what became known as “alienation techniques”. 

  In fact the word “alienation” used in this context is a bit of a red herring. I think the Brecht, like Brook and Grotowski,  was driving at undermining the primly defined conventions of theatre as he saw it.  The Deadly Theatre of the glossy, bourgeois light comedy. He wanted to give the pendulum a push in the opposite direction. He was a man of the theatre and understood the necessity of emotional engagement in his plays even if he didn’t preach it.  Ironically, Brechtian Theatre has become a style of the mainstream.  Contemporary audiences are much less challenged by such techniques than they might have been in the 1930s.  We have absorbed Brecht and his ideas into the mainstream.  Brecht was not trying to undermine theatre as a whole but to “re-function it” and to make it more relevant and challenging.

For me, the key to this is Nietzsche’s idea in “The Birth of Tragedy” that the individual can lose themselves in a collective Dionysian event and thereby undergo an ecstatic transformational experience while recognising the authenticity of the created world and how it coincides with the real.

In Greek mythology, Apollo and Dionysus are both sons of Zeus. Apollo is the god of reason and the rational, while Dionysus is the god of the irrational and chaos. The Greeks did not consider the two gods to be opposites or rivals, although often the two deities were entwined by nature.  The Apollonian is based on reason and logical thinking. By contrast, the Dionysian is based on chaos and appeals to the emotions and instincts. - Wikipaedia

Thus theatre explores our need for authenticity twice over.  First in the great Apollonian consistent world that that the playwright creates and reports on and secondly in the Dionysian immediacy and transformative power of the event itself.   
Note, that I am not saying what form that authenticity takes, just that the drama needs to have both plausibility and deep engagement with its subject matter.  And that must come from the playwright.  If you like, that predicates a third form of Authenticity, that contained and manifested in the playwright herself.

Nietszche suggests that the only way we can attain any form of enlightenment is by scrupulous self examination.in which we disclose the furthest reaches of ourselves.  By implication he says there is a rich inner life to be explored and that truthfulness in this exploration is the only virtue.  If, as playwrights, we want to observe truth in our work then we must chase down the inner workings of ourselves and thence our characters as if we were the Spanish Inquisition. 

But in this fractured, opinionated world of 2017, which writers have the resources either in time or expertise for this critical examination of themselves and their own writing?     Where are the great works that seek to portray and explain the current divisions in society?  Where are the contemporary “Three Sisters”  “Hedda Gabler”.  Where are the bold playwrights like Aphra Behn or Dario Fo? Sadly, playwrights are losing opportunities to write with such engagement, to construct towering mountains of ideas or to create worlds of experience.  And without those opportunities, the skill withers away. Many of the current ways into playwriting are to blame.  The ten minute sketch or the monologue are excellent introductions to the art but they are not the art.  A ten minute play is really a sketch and while it may be funny, thoughtful, clever, witty it simply does not have the room to construct a proper narrative or to follow characters that are allowed to build and develop.  The ten minute sketch is an art form in itself but it is not playwriting.  And I believe this is where we are losing the skills and sensibilities required in constructing plays.  Writing a play is a marathon not a sprint.  It is a five day test match rather than a T20 Big Bash.  Emerging playwrights ought to be given real incentives to write real plays, and, I suggest, as soon as the plays become big and challenging with room for big ideas then audiences will be enticed back as they always are to the authentic narrative which has no counterpart in the other media..

Many young writers have these important imperatives in their work. They may be dealing with the big subjects but unless there is room for their work to grow in size and scope then they will not be able to create the theatre that is so desperately needed.  At the same time, they hear only the glib quick cut language of film and television making.  They are not sufficiently exposed to the theatrical narrative style which requires time to develop.  Theatre needs to be more contemplative and require exposure over longer periods than the disposable media.

I have suggested before that there ought to be some way for young writers to serve the sort of apprenticeship that I had. I was given opportunities to work alongside established playwrights and directors, to sit in on rehearsals, to stand on the side of the stage and watch actors at work.  I was given the opportunity to handle a few rewrites for other writers and eventually to work with studio companies on my own works.

It is essential that theatre is grabbed back from the accountants and gatekeepers.  And wrested from control of the large commercial funders who would seek to channel the inspiration of the creatives.  We must join forces with like-minded creatives and producers  and write the sort of theatre that needs to be written.

Theatre in its greatest form is like a towering moving crystal ice sculpture loud with trumpets and voices that has the power to drive an audience to the further reaches of their feeling and comprehension.  Today it has become the artform smashed into a million tiny glittering shards, all beautiful in themselves but unable to generate the visceral response that Brook and Grotowski and Artaud were challenging us to provide.  And if we are not careful, if we do not show young writers how to aspire to creating this greater thing, those fragments that are left will melt away altogether leaving us infinitely poorer.