Thursday, 27 April 2017

Virtually Verbatim

As part of my ongoing research into theatre's response to crisis I have been actively researching, and attending where possible, productions that have come about in this way.

One of the elements that several of these plays have had in common is the use of verbatim material. In the National Theatre's case testimonies were gathered through extensive interviews. For the production of Brexit: The Musical, the politician's own words were warped into song.

Verbatim theatre is a development of Documentary Theatre, and is considered to have been influenced by Joan Littlewood's work during the forties, fifties and sixties. It is a useful tool for dramatists when working on political, sociological or State-Of-The-Nation plays as it allows for a range of views to be expressed and presented in myriad ways.

I feel that one of the ways in which theatre can create response in audiences is through empathy: audiences identify with one or more of the characters and undergo catharsis or emotional development through that character's journey. Verbatim theatre allows for this to happen in a truthful way rather than in one that has been entirely artificially constructed.

Through the use of direct testimony, writers can combine artistic licence to create impact: if a verbatim play were simply reconstructions of conversations or statements, we may as well watch the news! It is this interweaving of reality and fiction that makes a verbatim play truthful, in a way that news reports and documentaries simply can't match (I also suspect this is why so many historical documentaries use reconstructions and actors - if we can't see or hear "something", how can we be expected to "see" or "hear" something?

Image Source: Quantified Communications

Yes, personal bias will come in to play; that of the playwright, the director, the actors and each member of every audience. The message I took from My Country may not be the same as the person sat next to me. But this is a risk with every play. Many theatres, when confronted with crisis rummage in the archives and produce a Shakespeare in modern dress, which is then hailed as a sign of our times. It is something quite brave and radical to actually use contemporary, relevant voices to make a point.

Theatre is also a rather 'safe-space' for pitching ideas that may be shouted down in regular conversation: the conventions of theatre dictate that the audience is most often a passive spectator, watching and hearing the action unfold. This allows for the playwright to pose an argument in an eloquent and measured way, and to occasionally present the opposing point, without being interrupted, or shouted down.

In a time when no one gives the other a chance to speak, and refuses to hear anything that contradicts their previously confirmed point of view, it is more essential than ever that theatre gives voice to those who are silent or silenced.

It's no surprise to me that the Ancient Greeks were the ones who created both democracy and theatre festivals, and that engagement with both was considered to be an essential aspect of a citizen's civil duty. I think it should be again.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Negative Nelly

The world is quite negative at the moment, and this negativity can have an effect on all of us.

One small, seemingly insignificant way in which I've noticed this manifesting in everyday life is with the proliferation of negative questioning.

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What is that? It's something that I think we all do, but everyone that I've pointed it out to has stopped and thought "Yes, that is odd, isn't it?"

"I don't suppose you have..."
"You don't think you could just..."
"I'm sorry but do you know..."
"I don't think you can help, but..."

"You don't do shoes in black, do you?" Working in retail I hear a variation of this all of the time. The negative question. The immediate assumption of impending disappointment. Why?

During a conversation about this question, it was suggested to me that it may have been because the customer in this specific instance had already looked and not found the item. I pointed out that the customer in this instance was a telephone customer and therefore had no ability to have already looked.

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When you stop and think about it, I'm sure you've done this at some point. I'm certain I must have done. But it is an odd thing isn't it?

Is it presuming that we will be disappointed, or thwarted? Is it that we have been let down in a certain way previously and thus think that what we're looking for, or asking after, is wrong or non-existent? Is it simply a quirk of the English language? Or is it that the relentless negative pressure of the world is getting to all of us in tiny yet myriad ways.

Try this: the next time you ask a question and find yourself reaching for the "Don't" word. Don't. The answer might still be no, but starting from a more positive standpoint might increase the likelihood of you achieving your aims. Try and eliminate negative words from your everyday vocabulary and you may find that negative thoughts and expectations lessen as well. I know that sounds a bit odd, but asking someone if they "don't have" is rather odd as well.

And for the record, yes. We do have shoes in black.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

British Politics: The Soap Opera - Second Season

So it seems that "British Politics: The Soap Opera" has been recommissioned for a second season in 2017. It's nice to see that the financial backers of this farcical 2016 melodrama have faith in, what appears to be a failing franchise.

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I haven't really got my head wrapped around this yet, so this is, against my usual inclination, a bit of a knee-jerk-reaction blog. My initial feeling is that this is a party-political move: May has seen that the Conservative Party has a huge lead in the polls, and, as an un-elected Prime Minister, she sees a chance to solidify her leadership and her mandate as the Brexit negotiations get underway.

Also, I don't really understand why everyone's acting so surprised about this announcement. I mean, the timing of it is quite astonishing I suppose - after refusing Scotland a referendum saying that "Now is not the time", how is it suddenly time for a General Election? And this after having protested for nine months that there will be no snap election? But the other parties have been preparing for one since June, so there must have been a little foreknowledge somewhere.

But, it's not the first time that Theresa May has changed her mind, is it? The lady is, obviously, for turning.
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The news channels are saying, rightly, that the main point of the election is going to be Brexit. And yes, it will be. But alongside that we have to take into account the NHS crisis, the school funding crisis, the housing crisis, the social care crisis, and the political situations across Europe and the world, and so on and so forth.

I also wonder whether many of those who voted to Leave the European Union, who are also those who happen to be suffering most from Tory austerity, will upset May's apple cart by voting against the Conservatives.
A lot of people are feeling politically disengaged, suffering from so-called 'voter fatigue', so perhaps the turn-out won't be as expected.
On the other hand, the Referendum saw an upswing in membership of political parties, and young people especially have become more politically engaged after they have seen the direct effect politics has on their lives and their future.

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As I have written about previously, it's fairly obvious where my political affiliation, and therefore my vote, lies. In elections across Europe, recently, there has been a backlash against the apparent rise of far-right and nationalist sentiment, with liberal candidates faring better than expected. Maybe the same thing will happen here?

Fraught and Fearless

I read a very interesting article yesterday, talking about the gorgeous statue of Fearless Girl, which has been placed opposite the Charging Bull on Wall Street, and it sparked a conversation about the meaning of art, and whether the intended message of an artwork can change when it is juxtaposed with another.

Image Source: The Boston Globe

I adore this statue: a small girl in the heart of a financial district, plucky and spirited, standing strong against a golden bull.
I adore what I was told she was representing: placed there for International Women's Day, she highlights the dearth of women in leadership roles.

Even as I have read more about the controversy around her, I still love the statue as a piece of art and the juxtaposition with the hyper-masculine bull charging towards her.

Image Source: The Seattle Times

The artist of the bull is a gentleman called Arturo Di Modica. He installed Charging Bull one night in 1987, after spending two years and thousands of his own dollars creating it. He wasn't commissioned; he wasn't given permission. Charging Bull was a piece of guerrilla art, designed, says Di Modica, to represent the resilience of the American people during the financial crisis. The bull is the people charging the banks, and holding the bankers accountable to the people whose money they hold; hopefully reminding those who work on Wall Street that, every time they walk to work, they are answerable to the people.

Fearless Girl was a commission by one of the investment firms based on Wall Street. The artist, Kristan Visbal, was paid by a corporation to create this faux-guerrilla statuette, initially only to be placed for a couple of weeks. The outpouring of love for what is, on its own, quite a kitsch little figure, has been such that Fearless Girl will stand for a little longer. But, she was designated to be a temporary tip of the bankers hat to an international awareness day, designed to temporarily guilt businesses into looking at the gender imbalance on their boards. 

Image Source: US Weekly

Di Modica is angry, and I understand why. The intention of his artwork has been undermined. Now his symbol of the anger and power of the American people is seen to represent everything it was created to resist: the banks, corporate power, and hyper-masculinity. Undermined by a statue commissioned by one of the companies it was raging against.

On the other hand, once a piece of artwork is in the public domain, does the artist have any right to dictate how it is perceived? We know that people like, or dislike, different things, and that's the beauty of art - how I read something may be completely different to how you read it, and that's fine, surely? Is art in the interpretation rather than the creation?

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

A Great Escape

As part of my preparation for next years Masters Degree I mentioned that I have been reading 'State Of The Nation' by Michael Billington. I am particularly grateful to this book for the empty pages at the end, which have allowed me to scribble notes that wouldn't quite fit in the margins.


I have also been attending relevant plays and performances, to investigate how theatre responds to crisis: a couple of weeks ago I saw An American In Paris at the Dominion Theatre, and while this may not seem to be a particularly political piece of theatre, I would actually argue that it is a valid response.

Glance around London's West End right now: alongside perennials such as The Lion King, modern hits like Book Of Mormon and Matilda, there has been an influx of classic, vintage musicals, including An American In Paris and 42nd Street.

Musical Theatre, and musical films, have had their biggest successes during times of crisis: people crave escapism and lavish musicals provide this. A critic recently came under fire for reviewing 42nd Street, and suggesting that it might have more impact had the writers explored the background against which the frothy piece of entertainment was set - namely, the Great Depression. And while, sometimes, contextualising is useful, at other times people don't want to be reminded of what awaits them at home; they want glamour; in both the sense of romance and sparkle, and the more traditional sense of a magic spell or enchantment.

Image Source: Getty Images

Theatre responds like this regularly. It is noticeable time and time again: during the 1980's there was a surge of commercial musical theatre, led by Andrew Lloyd Webber with productions of CatsJesus Christ Superstar and so on. He is back on form now, during another crisis, with the new musical School Of Rock and a re-staging of JCS both winning Olivier Awards in 2017.

There is a time and a place for political, state-of-the-nation theatre, and, while "enjoy" might not quite be the correct word, I do "enjoy" hard-hitting, relevant, thought-provoking productions. But, occasionally, I just want to sit in a dimmed auditorium and watch impossibly talented dancers hoof around the boards, forgetting my troubles, and the troubles of the world outside the theatre.

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Escapism is a perfectly valid response to a crisis. It is the theatrical equivalent of a pyjama-day: soft, fluffy and comfortable. It is uplifting, life-affirming and regenerating, and we are always sure of a happy ending. And in an uncertain world, it is essential to have that certainty somewhere. Theatre has a duty to provide that as much as anything else.