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.
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.