Theatre hierarchies - why don't we ask the audience?

Alex Murdoch, 19 September 2012

but this was not what it was about...for a while

This started with me and Phelim talking about how I don't really want to talk about this anymore. That I'd just been along to Will Wollen's session about who has inspired us, which was such a joyous session that it made me think about the nature of positivity in d&d itself, and in myself. Anyway we talked about how we both felt that we were sick of moaning about the hierarchies that exist...that made us think there were certain things about recognition that were uncomfortable with us.

Looking at the extraordinary list of inspiring theatre makers in Will's session we realised that none of those artists that had changed our world had operated in the mainstream, but had all played with edges. None of those artists had made those sort of ‘career move moves’. I was talking to Tom Morris a year ago about where I was at with my so-called directing career - and he provoked me by asking for a list of 10 plays I wanted to do. And I kind of sulked about that for a couple of hours because maybe that wasn't the kind of directing world I wanted to operate in; it certainly wasn't where I'd be making my best work. A year later that felt like a fantastic bit of personal feedback. Phelim talked about how Lee came up with a phrase for Improbable in the future - a why-they-exist - that they wanted to be ‘difficult to assimilate but impossible to ignore’. Its about our relationship with the establishment.

So instead of this conversation we talked about our dead Dad's and that feeling that

we ought to ‘have a proper job’. ‘But’ Phelim said ‘that kind of proper job is never going to happen if I’m working with my heart'. I talked about a moment when I was very happy with my working life, just after Gaulier. And at that point my Dad said ‘Why don’t you just swallow your pride and knuckle down and get a spear carrying role at the RSC and work up from there'. Like signing up for National Service. We talked about opera and how P felt that the hierarchies were easier to engage with than theatre. (this is when Tania joined us). That theatre is trickier to deal with because noone can ultimately say what ‘good acting’ really is. Whereas when a skilled opera singer sings that's fucking extraordinary and you can't argue with it. (We joined up thinking from Will's session about his love of skill and respect and training for actors). P said ‘maybe because I don’t really care so much about opera I can really do what I like'. Tania said opera was her baby but there is a hierarchy there - whose mantra goes ‘we know what the audience want’. Julia Bardsley was an inspiration in this world, when opera felt restrictive.

We talked about my apparently redundant question - how were the audience meant to be invited in to this conversation. P : ‘Give the audience guns’

P talked about a Keith Johnstone exercise about giving real feedback. The audience walks out of the room as soon as they are bored. They don't have to articulate why, they just leave.

I talked about how I feel that rural touring has brought this kind of immediate and inescapable relationship with the audience that has entirely informed every thing I do. In one show, during an intimate moment, one (deaf) old lady bellowed ‘Oh no, this is rubbish’. You can't argue with feedback like that. All village hall experiences are like that for me to a greater or lesser degree (though largely more positive!) - the audience

are on their own territory - you are invited in - and their experience is right there and clear. You can feel it in your skin. Interestingly Tania and P both felt the same thing with opera audiences - that the audience are active - they work on the silences and it's tangible. They feel the nuances of the interpretation; they, as Tania said ‘are individuals and they don’t want to be neutral they want to be heard'.

P told a story from Paul Hunter. Paul was looking out to a hugely appreciative crowd who were cheering his performance. And at the back was this guy very visibly miming a raspberry and toilet chain gesture.

Tania said music's good because the audience follow, they understand it has a journey, a melody, and they demand it's resolution, know it will be concluded. I said often I feel theatre is really scary because you feel that it's never going to end. P : ‘the audience walk out exercise is good because eventually the audience teach themselves about drawing out a narrative; inevitably later on they will teach the performers about story’. T : ‘ I love singing when I feel the audience are drawing the music out of me’ - a beautiful idea. Satyagraha was like that for P - the audience are holding onto silence, 2500 people at the Met. Opera he said is the opposite of Broadway - where there's a lot of noise and nobody ever must know that it might have gone wrong. Opera is live and human. I remembered Will's appreciation of skill and technique as an inspiring thing.

Phelim said when the hierarchies in the theatre get to me I go and do the Store (Comedy Store). We talked about impro, skill and how you can't argue with the response because it's right there. Apart from the gatekeepers...

We went back to the heroes and that that's why the dead ones (Beckett) and the past ones are good because ‘noone can moderate my relationship with their work’. T -

‘theatre buildings can do that, affirm the hierarchy, the ’fourth wall' mechanism assumes that the expert is always the person onstage, not the audience member'. I always feel like this with bad productions of Beckett.

3 more lovely ladies joined here - can you add in your names? One talked about Jonathathan Kay playing with making the audience the performance....but ‘I do like the mechanism though’. P said ‘Is the mechanism being used to consolidate the hierarchies or...otherwise’

So we catch the ladies up; we'd started by saying our relationship with the work will never be satisfied. The inner critic will never go away. If I ran a building I'd want to run a bigger one. P : ‘While I’m thinking that, attending to that feeling that will never be asuaged, I will never be making good work'.

We talked about the chasm between the audience and the work; and how I feel that right now that is the largest amount of stuff that gets funded; the umbrella orgs, the networks etc.

I talked about when we got a call a while ago from Judith Hibberd when she was at ACE. We'd had alot of success rural touring and we'd got some funding to tour, but did we want an extra 5k to make this stuff happen in Surrey? Where there was then no rural touring. So I rang up these village hall...gatekeepers. No interest. One chap listened - ‘we’ve got this great show that everyone loves. And you can have it for free' ‘No no’ ‘No maybe you’ve misheard, it costs about a grand but that's paid for, you can take the full box office and put it towards your roof, you don't pay for anything'. He replied ‘No no, nobody in this village wants that sort of thing’

Cathy Westbrook had a similar experience in Finchley ‘We are a middle class area and we want a middle class circus’. Surely the whole point of circus is to slum down, to see the exciting people who are doing the more interesting thing with their lives! Like John Major the guy who ran away from the circus to join the conservative party.

There was tricksy conversation here about the miners strike and how people reacted when the found out they ‘all had colour tv’s' - and artists wanting funding is a bit like that. Now the circumstances are going to be that only the sort of people who can afford to do it for free can work. This angers the living shit out of me. P talks about this weeks ‘severe alerts’ and warnings via Gardner and twitter that more cuts are coming, look out. Are we going to go down with the ship or learn to swim underwater, or look for a different ship or get the old Dunkirk spirit. Will Wollen says ‘I think I’m a free market anarchist' - I can't add anything to this Will!

Then by now the conversation has drifted into funding and how if we're the flexible ‘bottom fish’ we have more options....but that funding buys us time....

I drift off here because the conversation I didn't want to have has been very much had and I feel happy.

*We spoke at the end about our friends The World Famous who've sadly chosen to close, citing the climate of funding favouring elitist work among other reasons. This was my inspiration for asking this question. Mike Roberts is one of the most inspiring visionaries making work I know; a true artist. We look forward to his work continuing in another shape and form.



opera, joy, hierarchy, inspiration, inner critic, love, rural touring, careers, Love, Opera, Careers, impro, Joy, making good work, being yourself, being an artist, responsibilities, integrity, crappy questions