Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Open Space 1 - Do We Want Any More Stories?

Convenor – Jackie Bolton

NB. The following is drawn from notes I took during the group discussion. I was not, unfortunately, able to capture who said what; I have simply tried to document the thoughts and comments prompted by the question. I apologise in advance for any misrepresentations of opinion that may occur.

The above question was prompted by what seems to me a fascination with the ‘individual voice’ in British theatre. This fascination has led both playwrights and those who facilitate playwriting to focus on the ‘unique perspective’ or ‘personal story’ of the playwright over other considerations such as theatrical form or audience reception. In the cultivation of new plays and new playwrights, the mantra has been ‘write what you know’. Whilst acknowledging the importance of representing diverse voices and experiences on British stages, I wonder firstly whether the theatre industry has not exploited the ‘stories’ of individual playwrights, and secondly whether the play-based dramaturgies through which these stories are conventionally told delimit or neglect the communicative potential of theatre. How might considerations of form, in tandem with considerations of content, both broaden the potential range of communicated meaning and challenge audiences’ critical engagement with the events/encounters so depicted?

The idea of the ‘Trojan Horse’ arose first: engaging an audience with a ‘good story’ as a means of smuggling in potentially subversive ideas/politics etc.

Inevitably, the question of what exactly was meant by ‘story’ or ‘story-telling’ was asked. It was suggested that what is at issue here are forms of story-telling which insist on telling one story in one way, forms which leave little room for interpretation or critical intervention by the audience. Rather than dictating a story to an audience, perhaps there are ways of telling stories that are multiple – not simply multiple narratives onstage but multiple ways of interpreting/engaging/piecing narrative strands together.

Again the idea of subversion arose: that it was possible to manipulate the standard dramaturgical structures of story-telling – plot, character, action etc. - unconsciously expected by audiences in order to subvert expected meanings.

It was pointed out that the cultural expectations always already appended to conventional structures of story-telling – the protagonist, the conflict, the resolution etc. – were oppressive when it came to telling stories which involved disabled persons or which aimed to express experiences from disabled perspectives. The cultural baggage that audiences tend to attach to disabled characters makes it difficult to write a protagonist, for example, that might be considered anything but ‘plucky’.

It was pointed out that ‘stories’ do not necessarily have to conform to the Hollywood ‘script guru’ Robert McKee’s formulaic structures of story-telling.

Is was queried whether the question really was ‘Do we want any more stories?’ or perhaps rather ‘Are there means other than story-telling by which I might sucker an audience to watch my show’?

The emphasis in theatre-making is on engaging an audience’s attention – stimulating an emotional interest in or response to the events onstage even if they weren’t told as a linear story.

It was suggested that watching a play is really just a matter of following a thought – of finding this particular character’s (playwright’s?) head an interesting place to be in for a couple of hours.

No matter how sophisticated the narrative strategies are, or how random sequences, images or events might appear to be, we cannot stop the audience from piecing together some sort of coherent narrative – the impulse is hardwired into our brains. Perhaps we don’t need complete stories – but the audience will always function as a detective.

An argument may be a plot – all about drawing two thoughts together.

Should we trust the audience to piece together their own story?

Theatre is a collective experience, not an individual personalised one: as a member of an audience your responses will be influenced or channelled through the responses of others.

Are we at a moment of cultural change vis-à-vis the ways in which ‘story’ might be understood, constructed and received? The ‘narrative of Empire’ has declined – we don’t believe in over-arching stories of ‘man’, ‘progress’, ‘enlightenment’ any more (the demise of grand narratives – Lyotard and Jameson).

The presidential elections: who is in control of the political narrative? The representation of candidates, of the election, of the various campaigns is a highly political issue: who is controlling this narrative? The means by which political ascension is made seemingly natural, inevitable by conscious and skilful manipulation of dramaturgical mechanisms evidences precisely the critical nature of this discussion.

The dramaturgical structures, or ‘forms’ of theatre-making and playwriting are not neutral, transparent, amoral, apolitical. Strategies of representation – of which the natural realist play-based forms taken for granted in this country are part - are inherently political as key means by which we make sense of social, political, economic, psychological, sexual etc. realities.

Perhaps what we are after are not theatrical forms which are resistant to story-telling but forms which are aware of complexity of story-telling.

With regards the New Writing explosion of the past couple of decades: the focus upon ‘individual voice’ has been both symptom and cause of a ‘manufactured authenticity’ (after Noam Chomsky’s ‘manufactured consent’) colluding with an un-thought-through plan (Arts Council?) to generate new plays and new playwrights. (New Writing proved good for business). The ‘burden of representation’ has been placed upon a few individuals whose experiences have been claimed as ‘authentic’ by theatres seeking to discover (and market) ‘new’ voices. Just because no-one has ever heard a particular story onstage before, it doesn’t make the telling of that story or the representation of that experience ‘authentic’.

The past few years have witnessed a decline in plays written in conscious response to previous plays, productions, playwrights or theatres. In place of such ‘secondary criticism’, the ‘here and now’ of contemporary society has dominated, with ‘the youth’ regarded as the most direct means of accessing the desires, hopes and issues of contemporary audiences.

What we might want is a theatre culture in which the issue of ‘individual voice’ (of ‘originality’ of ‘vitality’, of direct, unmediated access to experience) is permanently problematized. You can only be ‘authentic’ once! After that you’re simply a playwright!

Novelty in playwriting is inherently conservative: by simply injecting the system with ‘novelty’ (e.g. ‘new’, ‘unheard of’ voices), the system itself remains the same.

The reception of the play: how does the environment in which a production is mounted impact upon the ways in which the work (or story) is received? How many levels of mediation are there and how do they affect the work?

British theatre seems to value direct, spontaneous responses to productions: don’t like the idea of wading though secondary material in order to ascertain how a particular production has been interpreted/realised by a creative team: don’t like to be told what to think but to simply experience it for oneself.

British theatre does not have to think about or concern itself with ‘versions’ of productions as in other countries (on the continent, for example): speaking English, we don't have to deal with translations (adaptations, versions) of play-texts to the same extent or in the same manner as other theatre cultures.

Perhaps playwriting should experiment less with ‘telling’ audiences a story than ‘inviting’ stories from audiences (trusting them to organise their own narrative journey).

By way of contrast, circus companies are increasingly inviting directors to work with their performers in order to ‘build in’ a story to their spectacles, to ground their performances in a narrative arc.

Jacqueline Bolton
University of Leeds
West Yorkshire Playhouse

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