understanding theatre

On Failure

Last week, our "Theatre in London Today" class was visited by performance artist Bruno Roubicek, who has worked a fair bit with Forced Entertainment. For those unfamiliar with Forced Entertainment work, I definitely suggest looking them up..will include a few video links below for you as well. Anyway, Forced's work and Bruno's work focus on the aesthetics of failure, something he suggests "reflects the failings of authority. . . questioning the legitimacy of the establishment" and which reflects "the postmodernist concern with failure of society and economics". Rather than aiming for a performance which would be successful by the regular standards - realistic set, believable performances, clear narrative, etc - Forced Entertainment seem to perform the anxiety of the modern (Western) experience. In one show, Bloody Mess, the characters express how they want the audience to see them in an honest confessional style format looking almost like an AA Meeting. The play then continues on to portray them in a way that undermines these desires, hence performing their failure to achieve a desired effect.

While sometimes trying to the audience, this work most certainly affects the audience (even if the result is frustration, boredom, or anger). I respect this fully, because so much "enjoyable" and "successful" theatre has no effect whatsoever on its audience, who happily leave after their evening of entertainment, unmoved by that which passed before them.

Now, in Bruno's discussions, he took us back through a history of failure in performance, demonstrating the skills of people like Jack Benny, Monty Python, other comedians (unfortunately my limited familiarity with Brit comics pre-2000 limited my ability to grab all the names...). One commonality I noticed was the relationship with the permission to laugh and the performance of failure; every performance, even the ones that took themselves most seriously, seemed to set themselves up to give permission to the audience to laugh. A free pass to identify failings and laugh at their performance in public.

This, of course, got me thinking; what happens if this free pass is not provided? If we do not give the audience permission to laugh at the characters, their situations, and their failed attempts to perform a task, but rather demand the audience's serious attention. Is it possible to perform failure in a situation which does not first give the laughter permission to escape? Or is this our only way to watch failure without turning to despair? Further yet, is performing the despair of failure functional? Does it, too teach us something?

I performed in a show in 2011 which, now that I examine it from this perspective, did perform failure; in that case, it was the failure of the characters to act in a way that would get what they wanted. The piece allowed them to re-visit those situations from their original plays, role-playing to re-enact situations where they could be dominant. One reviewer picked up on the heavy thread of despair running through it. Perhaps despair is the dramatic equivalent to laughter. For many people seeing this show, the despair was overwhelming, to the point that some reviewers criticized it for doing so, not allowing a reprieve so to speak. But do we not have something to experience from this as well? If you consider the ancient Greeks, plays like Medea and Oedipus are one long-running moment of despair and hopelessness after the next, but this adds together for a final result of hope; the ability to act or choose differently. Despair can be a useful tool.

If this is so, it is certainly difficult to ask audiences to come experience despair for an hour or two, and pay to do so. But perhaps this is necessary; for too long we have seen a comic approach to performing failure, and in fact, it has become mainstream with programs like John Stewart in the US, Mock the Week in the UK, and This Hour Has 22 minutes in Canada (among others reaching further back). I suggest that while these comic approaches to failure have worked to incite action in the past, they are becoming common, and therefore not causing the impact they might once have had. Forced Entertainment's work does seem to straddle this gray area between comedy and despair, having their audiences feel slightly aware of the impropriety of their laughter. I think this can go further.

Some videos from Forced:

Reflections - The Audience

I have been spending quite a lot of time thinking about the audience. Clearly, without the audience, we really can't have theatre. Until there are people out there, taking in your words and gestures, everything is just a rehearsal. The give and take between performers and between performer-audience are what make live theatre unique and enjoyable; the sense of risk that something could go wrong, the sense of profound connection with those around you. Increasingly among the avant-garde (and even in the mainstream) there has been a push to involve the audience in new ways. Immersive theatre experiences, although still relatively un-common in Winnipeg, are de rigeur here in London. Even companies as "mainstream" as Headlong, producing with the National Theatre, try to take steps at making the experience in some way interactive for the audience.

Our presentations at RADA played with this to varying degrees. Some groups had the audience sitting on the floor, some had them sampling treats, while still others had them participatinig in the violence against a character, pouring food and liquid over an actor bound to a chair. With each of these experiences, I questioned several things:
- when did this work for me as an audience member?
- when it did work, what was it about this that worked?
- when it didn't work, why not?
- regardless of efficacy, what was this doing to the audience member? And did the group creating the piece seem to know or intend this impact?

I spent likely an equal amount of time watching the audience as I did the production. How were they reacting? What were they happily taking on, compared to what got their backs up or made them uncomfortable?

What I found (almost overwhelmingly) was that when these moments of audience participation worked best, they felt like there was no other way to do it. I could not, as an audience member, think of another way for the message or the scene to be conveyed. The times when it didn't work were times when it didn't feel necessary, where the action felt as if it wasn't done for the sake of the production, but just for the sake of it. Indulgence, at times.

Oddly, some moments which, if described, would feel gratuitous, were just fine - they worked. While conversely others which may sound like they would be ok simply felt over the top. What it comes down to is intention and thought; has the company really thought through what they are doing, why they are doing it - can they justify the choice artistically and as it relates to the text. The times when this didn't seem possible, did not resonate.

Simultaneously, I have been been performing in an immersive theatre event called You Me Bum Bum Train. I can't reveal many details, other than that it is an opportunity for the audience member to be the focus of the show, experiencing various things from the absurt, to the unusual, to the mundane. I have been in a couple different scenes now, and had a chance over my several nights performing to gauge the various reactions people have to the different kinds of scenes. It is really fascinating to watch people who really buy into this audience power, and those who really shut down...along with all gradients in between. I actually admitted to a fellow cast-mate this week that if I just heard about it, I probably wouldn't want to go see this kind of show. Even going to the audition I was nervous, thinking about the awful kinds of audience participation I have seen over the years. But this specific production gives such ultimate care to the emotional ride of the passenger - in fact they call the performance a ride - each scene, and the succession of them, is carefully crafted to take a person through the highs and lows of human experience, but with a sense of safety that allows them to play.

I have, despite my initial worries, ultimate respect for the creators (Kate & Morgan) of this amazing experience, and only hope I can one day create something as truly special and experiential as they have.


It has now been nearly 4 weeks of the MA. The time has just flown by, I can't even conceive of what I've managed to do already. Directed a scene from Duchess, performed in a scene, created a presentation, read a mountain of plays (some required, some chosen). Agreed, disagreed, viewed 3 performances (two for school), had to turn down 2 amazing experiences (Marat/Sade, and Ralph Fiennes masterclass). Been amazed by the skill and talent around me, both in tutors and fellow students.

What is really resonating with me is the theme of choice. In the characters, in myself, in those around me. We were debating a bit yesterday about who the main character is in the Duchess of Malfi, and the role of the duchesss in the story. Are we meant to feel sorry for her? I don't necessarily thing we are to feel sorry for her, but I do think that the play as a whole hinges on her making a choice. Another student debated with me that she is selfish and doesn't think of the impact her choice to marry/have kids will have on others.....I'm not sure I agree on that being the case. She chooses not the specific act of marriage/kids against her brothers' will; she chooses power. Power over her own life, and those directly related. And what we see is the consequence of someone choosing power; ultimately her downfall. I don't see the Duchess' situation as necessarily female - even a man, choosing power (Macbeth anyone?) will suffer a downfall. For me, this is the tragedy in the play. Of course there are hundreds of other perspectives, social norms, etc, that play in to the situation, why her choice causes these events...but again it all comes back to choosing power.

The other major topic of choice for me is selecting the play on which I will write my dissertation. Somehow this feels like the most significant choice of my academic life; what if I choose poorly? What if the play I select doesn't align with my ideas about theatre any longer by January or February...what then?? Realistically I don't see this changing too much, but the idea of making such a significant choice, standing up for this....is rather frightening.

Overall, I am feeling good in the course; there are always moments that bother me, but surprisingly they have been on the academic side more so than on the practical side of the course. This is surprising, as generally one thinks that the subjective artistic side will be where disagreements form. Instead, I feel like each day, each tutor seems to re-affirm a thought or inclination I have had about creating work, approaching the work. Conversely the academic side sometimes bristles against my sensibilities; I keep wanting to yell out to challenge the reduction of theatre to a series of symbols, influenced and informed only by what the audience brings to the theatre. Shouldn't good work allow audience members to interact on all levels? Whether "well-read" or not at all....whether they come with a lot of theatrical viewing experience or not. This was really getting to me, so I have been reading in full the argument for phenomenology in the theatre in the States text. I am hoping that positioning the idea in the full argument will help me better understand, for right now it is feeling reductionist, and making me angry.

I should clarify the image as well - for me, this close up looks like someone reflecting on choice, how to proceed, what comes next. There is a mixture of despair and hope.

image: Edvard Munch - The Sick Child

What do we know?

Today began with rehearsals for our Malfi scenes, followed by Scene Study class with Tom. Our group presented our scenes from act 2 to moderate success. Tom noted that the understanding of the text and ability to present the text was good, however the level of conversation was missing, as a result of the pace being too quick. Stepping back. I definitely see this as well. In addition he challenged some of the choices our director made, particularly as they related to the Duchess; these were actually things that I had questioned in rehearsal, but stepped back to honour our director's wishes. While I agree the choices were odd, I do think that good learning came of doing things this way; it really made evident the importance of establishing power and status in a scene, even if you want to break with some of the conventions of the style.

After the second group presented, and we talked through what Webster was doing with the play, Tom took a few minutes to direct an Act 1 scene for us. He played with the Duchess, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, in a more informal setting. What really stood out in his direction was the sibling dynamic; for the first time we saw them as siblings, each of whom has some power. I was able to believe that the Duchess from this place would rebel against her brothers. Tom's note, and I think it a very important one, was to make sure to establish what we know about the relationship of the characters. If we get caught up in staging, power struggles, etc too soon, we risk losing the very base of their relationship.

Next week are our presentations; my group will be presenting on Current Affairs in and around 1613 when Webster wrote this play. Looking forward to the result of everyone's research!

Theorizing the Contemporary tonight focused on understanding the actor as a symbol. We discussed this both in reference to actual performances (Fiona Shaw, Irish production of Hedda Gabler) and fictional performances (George Clooney as Hamlet). There was a significant focus on the role of celebrity in our understanding of a play in production; the expectations we bring to the theatre in the audience, and also the argument that we bring along the other characters this actor may have played. I am not sure I agree with this; while watching The King's Speech (for example) I wasn't seeing Mr Darcy. I want to work at clarifying my argument on this. I don't necessarily think that the actor isn't informed by previous roles; a large role like Hedda Gabler sits with you for life, and will inform how a performer approaches future roles, even subconsciously. But (for me anyway) I don't feel like that happens as an audience member. That said, I do think that we might bring previous performances from other actors...for example, I couldn't help but compare Shaw's Hedda with my personal favourite, Glenda Jackson.

Finally we split into two seminars to discuss this at length. My group focused on Othello, and two particular productions; first with Lenny Henry, and second with Laurence Olivier. In further depth we discussed the role of style, historical context, and celebrity in an audience's understanding of the play.