What one idea from outside theatre has most changed your practice inside theatre?

Convener(s): Chris Goode 

Participants: About three dozen people, and we’re still going…

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations: 

I’ve noticed that often it’s the ideas that we translate across to the world of theatre from other disciplines, artforms, practices and cultures that can have the biggest impact on how we think about theatre and how we imagine what it might be able to do. Other theatre makers may influence us in all sorts of ways but often it’s an adoption or adaptation of ideas from elsewhere that make the real game-changing difference.

So I wanted to ask what those transformative ideas were for other people, and this is what came up, with blanket apologies for any mis-spelled names, garbled titles etc:

  • Primatology. That monkeys define status through eye contact. (Makes you think about stage actors in a different way!)
  • Lewis Hyde, The Gift. An examination of gift culture ­– generosity of spirit in action. What changes when instead of selling tickets we swap them for cake? (etc.)
  • Paula Rego’s painting ‘The Family’ – supports loads of different narrative readings. Problematizing but not confrontational.
  • Previous experiences in business sector, as a kind of negative shaping influence: wanting to not be dictated to by scheduling or fixation on product.
  • ‘Linda Joy’: an experimental Canadian documentary about a woman battling cancer, with an intimate commentary added to the footage after the subject’s death. The idea of video as record; the present constantly passing.
  • Funeral rites, ancestral worship rituals, esp Native American. Personal experience of funerals. (‘Funeral directors’: interesting performative terminology!)
  • Also, giggling and then suddenly crying at a funeral – abrupt and slippery transitions between emotional states.
  • The Lucifer Effect (sorry, didn’t make a note of the author): book about the Stanford Prison Experiment. How our behaviour is defined by situational rather than dispositional forces. By extension, how the structure you create as a director is fundamental to what work can be created.
  • Argon: how the presence of traces of an inert gas in the atmosphere means that we’re all connected by the air we breathe. Every time you breathe you breathe a few atoms of argon that were once breathed by… [think of a person, any person]
  • Psychics / spiritualists, and their performances. Does it really matter if the skills they claim to have are not actually real?
  • Coma (missed the author again, sorry): communicating with people in coma states through touch and minimal signals. The ethical questions (about agency, choice, right to life, etc.) that arise from understanding that there’s a whole world going on inside coma states. Rehearsal exercises developed out of this specialized contact language.
  • Harmonic chant.
  • A childhood recollection of pretending to be sick so as to bunk off school, and then watching Powell & Pressburger films with mum – sharing those moments, entering into the world of the films, eating Lockets…
  • Punk music; also,
  • Punk ethos – DIY. (See Forest Fringe, STK etc.)
  • Patrick Watson gig – the theatrical experience of togetherness, a sensation of collectivity
  • Pulp albums: Different Class, This is Hardcore: an influence on understanding of narrative forms.
  • Participatory economics – the collective ownership of an organization, and how that ownership is felt by participants; rotation of tasks etc.
  • The 12 Steps (program for dealing with addiction) – e.g. principles of being of service rather than being in charge; stepping away from ego; principle counting for more than personality. This had effected a complete change of rehearsal practice.
  • Rugby: a visceral, passionate, seemingly violent sport that promotes daring and the suppression of individual ego, and that is innately collaborative and smart in its reliance on strategic behaviours.
  • Pixies, Debaser. ‘Nuff said. - Also, the experience of arranging a Pixies party in a phone box – a sense of “wanting everything I do to feel like this” – not setting out to create theatre, but wanting to do something renegade.
  • A love of pathetic, futile gestures. Enjoying the absurdity of doing it anyway.
  • A knowledge that things can change the world without everyone having to see them.
  • Journalism. Some theatre could be seen as a kind of journalism, but wanting theatre to make it possible to enable a deeper exploration of issues and events. We talk about theatre being quickly responsive but it seldom is; journalism really is fast, and also good at being polemical. Theatre should take its time, avoid polemic, and concentrate on doing what journalism can’t.
  • Good manners. Finding oneself wanting to apologize to the audience / fighting against the urge to say sorry for everything!
  • Knowing that it’s OK to be paid for what you do…
  • …and that you are not what you make: your art is not you. Once the work exists, let it be.
  • Rothko exhibition at Tate Modern. No commentary / curatorial labels, so there was no sense of there being some predetermined stuff that you were supposed to understand or a particular set of ‘correct’ interpretations: and no reading or relationship was rejected by the paintings themselves – an object lesson in trusting the intelligence of the audience.
  • Music in general, especially jazz: the use of abstract structures in a context of improvisatory liveness
  • Gaspar Noe’s film Irreversible. Encouraging a reaction that’s visceral as much as cerebral.

A final conversation about The West Wing reminded me about an axiom often stated on that show: don’t simply argue about an issue – sometimes it makes better sense to reject the premise of the question. It feels like it’s exactly that that the practice of translating ideas across from other areas can remind us to do, because those ‘foreign’ ideas don’t just begin from a place of blandly accepting the premise of what theatre already is and can already do.

This was a really beautiful session – thanks to everyone who shared their ideas. People keep coming up to me and adding ideas or saying they wish they’d come to the session, so please email me if there’s anything you want to add to the list – I always really like hearing this stuff. Tell me things: [email protected] xx