Monday, 27 September 2010

A Little Bird Told Me . . . at Emergency

A Little Bird Told Me…will be part of greenroom’s annual free festival of contemporary performance, Emergency

What constitutes eavesdropping when all utterances are public? How are statements changed by being spoken, or read, by being overheard, retold, retweeted? What is signal and what is noise? What would it be like if physical space were as full of words as digital space?

The idea behind this durational performance is twofold: One the one hand, we’re going to fill greenroom’s bar with spoken and written text, using any tweets about the event as our source material. So, if you tweet something like: “Enjoying the weird and wild performances at #emergencymcr, great stuff!” or “I don’t understand what’s going on at #emergencymcr, what kind of performances are these, anyway?”(or indeed any tweet with the #emergencymcr hashtag) your tweet will be spoken aloud in the bar and also written down on a twitter-bird-shaped piece of paper and used to decorate the bar. All tweets with the hashtag will also be on display as a Twitterfall on a computer monitor at one end of the bar. This part of the show is about translating the amount of digital utterances that we users of the social media fill our screens and brains with into physical space.

On the other hand, we’re going to be eavesdropping on the event’s audience, and tweeting what we overhear, minus people’s names and plus the hashtag, from the dedicated account @albirdtoldme. Of course, since we are using the hashtag, this means that anything we overhear will also be spoken and written down as part of our performance, and displayed in the bar. This bit is all about the different conceptions of public and private that operate online and in real life: People are happy to tweet or post their thoughts for everyone to read, are they equally happy to be eavesdropped on? Why/why not?

This will start at 12:00 PM on Saturday, last for most of the day and culminate at 8:30, when I hope you’ll join in, reading out your favourite tweets from the event, singing along to our favourite song, and generally helping us to create a digital, physical, cross-platform hullabaloo.

How to participate:

Attend Emergency

Use the #emergencymcr hashtag

Follow @albirdtoldme

Join us at the bar at 8:30PM on Saturday to read aloud, tweet, sing, even dance if you feel so inclined.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Review: 1984

I recently decided to abandon my university-inspired attempts to integrate live performance with video and the new media and return to my first love, which I still think of as “real theatre”. It’s ironic that the first play I went to see after this decision should be so saturated with video as the Northern Broadsides/ Duke’s Theatre co-production of 1984, directed by Conrad Nelson .

Orwell’s dystopian novel, of course, is greatly concerned with the omnipresence of television, both as a tool of propaganda and surveillance, so the video screens embedded in the set are no mere device, but integral to the theme and plot of the show. The adaptation, by Nick Lane, is an intelligent and evocative one, allowing the cast of five to speak selected lines of description and commentary from the source text as well as dialogue, and building a remarkably complete picture of an oppressive society in a very short time.

Except for Nick Haverson, who speaks sometimes in character as Winston and sometimes descriptively of him, but is never associated with any other personage, the boiler-suited ensemble switch from a sort of chorus-like narration to playing any number of characters. They do it vividly and precisely, seamlessly stepping in and out of the third-person, changing the performance space through the well-choreographed movement of the set’s several wheeled doors along the way. In the very first moments of the production, this chorus tells us how Winston winkles himself into a tiny alcove to write, away from the constant gaze of Big Brother, and their impassive regard underscores not only the voyeurism of the Party, but also our own.

Over the course of the play, plot comes to dominate and narration retreats. Chillingly, Winston and his lover Julia, (Kate Ambler), are never alone in the space, always observed and commented on by the rest of the company. Robustly carnal and touchingly naïve as their relationship seems, it is constantly undermined by the staged regard of the chorus. In contrast, the distressing scenes where Winston is tortured by Chris Garner’s O’Brien are observed only by the audience; in the world of 1984, torture is more intimate than sex.

There is some lovely world-building, in the way the cafeteria worker dishes out meals to nonexistent party members with the same bored precision as to the ones played by the other actors, in the giggling malice of the choral schoolchildren angry at being denied the spectacle of a hanging, in the way Winston and Julia meet among the slogan-chanting crowds. I was struck by the power of some of the smaller vignettes, particularly by Carolyn Tomkinson as a memory of Winston's mother, and Andrew Price’s portrayal of a man who’d rather see his family’s throats slit than enter Room 101.

Which brings me to the only thing I really didn’t like, the video. The TV screens with which the set is studded work well when, as in the novel, they serve as vehicles for propaganda. When we are exhorted to hate Goldstein (Steven Finegold, who like Jill McCleary’s announcer appears only in these recordings), or to do our calisthenics, they are omnipresently oppressive, turning the audience themselves into denizens of Oceania. They are less effective in the animated sequences, showing close-up drawings of the actors, inevitably just out of synch, or when illustrating Winston’s dreams. Worse, they fail utterly to convey the peaceful beauty of the countryside where Julia and Winston’s first assignation takes place: The narrated words, and Julia’s fluid, exultant ownership of the space make that woodland clearing for us, the framed, colourful images just emphasize the grey, constructed nature of the set. Worst of all, the animated rats in Room 101 and Winston’s recorded voice wishing them on Julia instead carry only a tiny fraction of the emotional weight of the previous scenes of physical torture. Having followed Winston to this lowest point, I wanted to experience it through him. This Room 101 was not so much a horror of horrors as a damp squib. I know why it was done that way; Haverson’s Winston could then be seen but a moment later, neatly dressed and perfectly composed, seated in a café, a true devotee of Big Brother.

Though I understand the device, I regret it. The show’s best moments were created in more traditionally theatrical ways. They lay in the considerable skill of the cast, the lighting, and the changing arrangement of the set, and fine moments they were, many more than I can mention; packing emotional and philosophical punch. As the house lights came up at the end, the man seated behind me said, softly: “More powerful than the book.” Animations notwithstanding, I couldn’t disagree.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Sunday, 19 September 2010

The end of the MA: My Artist's statement


The bulk of this post is the artist's statement I wrote and submitted for the Masters' degree in Contemporary Arts Practice I've been studying towards at Lancaster University. I haven't received my grades yet, but I assume I've passed. Before you read the statement, I want to come clean: I've been speaking to lecturers, and writing on this blog (which has served to document my work towards the degree) as though I were interested in researching the relationship between live theatrical performance and the various media, live and recorded, old and new, which are playing an ever-greater role in theatre. That's how I've written the statement below, too. This was not a lie, but it wasn't the whole truth.

The whole truth is somewhat more contentious. You could summarize it like this: I hate most of the theatre that I was encouraged, as an an undergraduate, to reflect on. I hate most of what my university-educated contemporaries and those they admire, make. Whether you call it live art, performance art, contemporary performance, post-modern theatre, experimental, or avant garde; I hate most of it. I like quite a few of the people I know who make it personally, and I don't wish to offend them, but much of what I see I find predictable, self-indulgent, elitist, untheatrical, and alienating. Most importantly for the purposes of a degree intended to help me make my way professionally, I can't see myself making anything of the sort. I'll restrict myself to broad generalizations here, but go will into more detail in another post. Briefly then, most of the contemporary work I see has one or more of these characteristics: Autobiography, not-acting, repetitiveness, non-linearity, non-narrativity, non-fiction, obtrusive use of technology (mp3, video, the net, live feeds, audiences with headphones, etc), audience participation, abstraction, pop-cultural references, social commentary, being task-based, and formal experimentation.

For pragmatic reasons, including the presumed dearth of acting work for 40-year old Greek women with mid-Atlantic accents and no great facility with British ones, an ill-informed choice of undergraduate course, the lack of a conservatoire within commuting distance, and my being a single mother and loath to move my kid away from the father he loves and the school where he is happy, this is the theatrical environment in which I've been attempting to thrive. Of all the characteristics of the kind of work I encountered and felt I should be attempting to emulate, it seemed that obtrusive technology was the one I could make the most use of, partly because I was interested in building a larger audience for theatre, but mostly because I could still tell stories with it, about fictional characters. I presented myself as a person who was interested in the relationship between live theatre and technology because it was one of the aspects of contemporary performance I found least objectionable, and potentially most practical, not because investigating it was an overriding preoccupation.

So much for the long-overdue confession.

Artist's Statement

The first time I saw video used on stage was in Deborah Warner’s production of The Power Book in 2002. By 2009/2010, about half of the performances I saw used some technological medium or another: Lisa Hammond and Rachael Spence used mp3 players in No Idea, Nic Green’s Trilogy used video and live mobile telephone calls, and recorded video and animation were integral to Imitating The Dog’s Tales from the Bar of Lost Souls. These are by and large, experimental companies working at experimental venues, but I’ve also seen animation in Horse and Bamboo’s Veil, and live and recorded video in their Deep Time Cabaret. Even stuffy theatrical institutions are doing it; the National Theatre broadcasts live performances around the world, and the RSC described a tweeted version of Romeo and Juliet, which took place entirely online, as “theatre”.

This intrigues and troubles me: On the one hand, I am interested in how theatre might expand its audience against the competition of other entertainments. On the other hand, I passionately define theatre as a live and proximate form, with the performers as the primary carriers of meaning. Watching work into which technological media intruded, I concluded that they tended to undermine the artistic contribution of the actor to the quality of the performance and the degree to which the audience, collectively, was involved in creating the shared imaginative experience. To test this conviction, I decided to make work that, while dependent on various media, was rooted in the live.

I first tried to integrate live but remote audience input into theatrical improvisation through the use of mobile technology and the social media. Although this led to some work that I found interesting, including two durational performances and a game which was in Manchester’s Future Everything and London’s LIFT festivals, it failed, for technological, financial, and other pragmatic reasons to produce a replicable model that could be presented for academic assessment.

I decided to try another angle, seeing how theatrical storytelling might compete with the hyper-realistic visual storytelling of cinema. So, Sales Pitch , drawn from the same source material as many Science Fiction blockbusters, the stories of Philip K. Dick, is a direct response to them. It uses theatrical techniques to convey what I believe to be the stories’ intent, and bring them into the 21st century without losing the flavour of the period in which they originate, or the emphasis on the actors.

I’ve always been most interested in what actors bring to performance, so knowing and being able to rely on the artistic intelligence of the performers was a key consideration. Many of the choices I’ve made have been pragmatic, resulting from the very limited availability of the actors I chose. Others were dictated by a very tight budget and my limitations as a maker and a puppeteer. Ironically, a lot of the solutions were inspired by early Science Fiction television, from Doctor Who and Raumpatrouille Orion to the Clangers. Science Fiction has a long history on film and TV. Few people other than Ken Campbell have attempted to stage it.

I‘ve proven to my own satisfaction that mediated and live performance can be integrated to the detriment of neither; and that I’m not, on my own, the person to do it. This process has highlighted my limitations as a manager of time, budgets, and technology; indeed of theatrical space. I’ve decided that unless I can attract collaborators willing to shoulder the bulk of the responsibility for such areas, I am better off doing what I can do well on my own; adapting text and performing it as a storyteller. My next project will involve telling a story that’s in the public domain, as well as I can.