Thursday, 26 April 2012

a space of dignity, horizontality, love


I have a confession to make. I, a married woman, with two small children, am having an affair. With a gay man 12 years my junior. I'm pregnant with our lovechild. And we're having the baby.

How else to convey the euphoria, not to mention sheer terror, of the past 10 days? It started so innocently: a conversation between me and Jake Orr at the end of my session on dialogue between theatre-makers and theatre-writers at this year's D&D. It was the first time we had properly spoken and we quickly discovered a few shared experiences and principles. I was collaborating with Chris Goode, sitting in rehearsals, illuminating from an outside perspective Chris' day-to-day process and the implications of his work, whether in terms of Chris as a theatre-maker, his relationship with the wider theatre culture, or his politics more generally. Jake was about to collaborate with Dirty Market, sitting in rehearsals, experimenting with new ways to document devised work well before it was ready for an “official” review. Even though I still occasionally write such reviews for the Guardian, we both expressed our frustration with mainstream media criticism as a form. We wanted a new engagement with theatre, to find new ways of writing or communicating about it and within it. I didn't feel his desire to explore dramaturgy as a practice, but understood why he was contemplating it. I admired his jumper, although I probably forgot to say that bit.

It could have ended there, but then Diana Damian sent out a link to Culturebot, a website in New York dedicated to establishing a new relationship between artists and writers: “critical horizontalism”, they called it, a curation of online and live dialogues with an emphasis on theatre-writing as a creative practice. I felt an odd sort of jolt reading it, an uncertain excitement. Then Jake read it, and saw a vision of his future.

Ten days ago, he and I met again and began tentatively exchanging thoughts about a new theatre website. It would be a place of community, non-competitive in spirit, overlapping with other websites, blogs, discussion spaces. It would operate at a remove from the marketing agenda, the fevered fixation on press nights and the ticking clock of closing nights. Writers and contributors would have space for reflection: responding to theatre, not reviewing it, certainly not belittling it with a star rating. The writing would be strictly non-academic: I have a grown-up degree and all but words like dialectical still turn my brain to jelly. The space would be open to everyone engaged in making theatre possible: not just the people who make it but the administrators working around the piece and the audiences watching. My lovely friend Samantha Ellis recently lent me Max Stafford-Clark's Letters to George (yes, I'm that ill-read in theatre literature I'd never encountered it before) and I was struck by the letter written after the second tech: “It's possible to endure almost any situation at the Court as long as everybody thinks the work is good. When the building's internal verdict is split about the worth of a particular play morale sags alarmingly.” It's clear why we never hear those verdicts before press night: the people performing the play need to be protected. But what about afterwards? How often do theatre staff who aren't counted among cast and creatives get their voices heard, except in the most blandly promotional way? There are so many hierarchies to break down, so many protective barriers to break through.

So much was unknown to us in that talk: what the website would look like, how it might operate, who would contribute and how, where we would find the time to fit it into our lives (I have two real, living children and Jake has two real, time-consuming jobs, and that's just the start). Above all: were we the only people who felt this was important? Apparently not. As we began approaching other people – not just theatre-writers but makers, too, playwrights and directors and producers – we discovered we were touching a nerve. More than that: we were igniting fireworks. I sat at my computer and with every new email saw Catherine wheels.

It helped, I think, that this conversation took place just as Andrew Haydon was immersed in Forest Fringe at the Gate. Here was a two-week festival of work so concentrated that inevitably most of it would be off the mainstream critical radar, even the bloggers' radar, and yet every piece, no matter how unfinished, would be discussed in depth, both on its own terms and in the context of the night it appeared and the festival as a whole. It startled us all with a sense of possibility, of what a theatre-writer could offer not only to the people in the room at the time, but to the people around the country who wanted to be there but couldn't. What a writer could offer to the present and to the future. Andrew brought every single night of Forest Fringe to life on his blog; more than that, he shone a light on every idea and theme and thought that bounced from one night to the next.

It wasn't until I left London for Leeds, to spend the weekend with Chris Goode & Co at Transform, that I realised what a champagne bubble I'd been living in for the past five days. The day before, Daniel Bye had posted his musings on “embedded criticism” on his blog and Jake and I had been compared to Marx and Engels, which is apt to make a girl's head swell beyond all proportion. Drunk with excitement, I did a whole lot of self-important talking on the Saturday, for which I now feel wholly ashamed. Thankfully, the bubble was punctured, painlessly, beautifully, by a thought-provoking conversation with Jonny Liron. What he made me question is whether the rush to adopt a term like “embedded criticism” puts theatre-writers at risk of creating new moulds for themselves that might prove as rigid as the old moulds.

The engagement I, Jake and Andrew have with our respective theatre companies is very different and that shouldn't be blurred by a catch-all phrase. For a start, Andrew was the only one of us who actually was writing criticism: he watched the work on stage and reported back. What made it so valuable and inspiring was the intensity of his watching, the acuity of his reporting, his honesty: he never fudged not understanding, or gaps in his own knowledge. Above all, he proved that the confession of partiality, as opposed to the lie of impartiality that is expected in mainstream media concerned with issues of “trust”, makes a review look more searching and truthful, not less.

What Jake and I have been writing is anything but criticism. More or less live-blogging from the Dirty Market rehearsal room, Jake produced a blow-by-blow account of the making of a devised show that conveyed frustration and boredom and inspiration in equal measure. Its careful examination of the role played by each person in the room was full of questions: what are the directors doing? What does a dramaturg do? Does anyone know what's going on? Are these moments of lostness OK? Is it legitimate for me to feel part of the work even though I'm only an outside eye? Isn't it weird for me to be in the room and remain silent? If I can see a way forward for the piece, shouldn't I speak?

Although they forged a relationship through proximity, Jake didn't know Dirty Market before meeting them for this project, which is a totally different proposition to how I work with Chris Goode. I've been an awestruck fan of Chris for a decade now; the way I see it, I gave him a piece of my heart the day I watched Kiss of Life in 2002 and every time I see a new show I give another (after Woundman, a particularly big chunk). What he has given me in return is faith and trust. Whatever I doubt about my ability to do full justice to his work, there is one thing I know with absolute certainty. When I'm in his rehearsal room, I am silent witness. What I see may not be clear to me in the moment of watching, so I absorb as much as I can and watch it again and again in my head until that mistiness clears. And I'm there not because I'm A Critic, or because I Write For The Guardian. I'm there because of whatever that individual thing is that Chris sees in me, that I can't see in myself.

To me, the value of all these collaborations is really obvious, but one question Jake and I keep butting against is: are we just talking to ourselves, or to the tiniest of cliques? I honestly can't imagine people not being interested in every aspect of theatre, especially – to borrow Chris's phrase – upstream theatre, but then it's my life, my passion. Whenever it worries us, we remind ourselves of another principle of the website: we're not concerned with “success” in the capitalist market-forces sense. This is a space for labourers of love, not chasers of profile or monetary gain. (The title for this, by the way, comes from John Holloway's Crack Capitalism.) To me, that is what theatre is for: it shows us what happens when people are not generous to each other, or distrust each other, or live in a state of hostility, and what happens when they extend kindness, sympathy, love. In promoting new collaborations between theatre-writers and makers what Jake and I are promoting are new dialogues of generosity. If that's perceived by readers or audiences as disregard for the outside world, we'll have expressed ourselves very wrongly indeed.

There is a general attitude of suspicion around theatre-writers forming relationships with makers, a sense that it compromises our writing and skews our judgment. But I don't buy it. I feel much more compromised writing a review of Enda Walsh's new play for the Guardian that doesn't confess to the minor crush I harbour for the man: I go into his plays intending to like them. I feel much less truthful writing up an interview with Amy Lame for G2 in which I give no indication of the fathomless admiration I have for the woman. There are so many secrets in theatre, so many agendas and prejudices, so much dishonest practice. Surely we can be more open than that?

Once you start to unpick the unstated rules of theatre-writing, so much unravels. Going to Leeds made me think very hard about the media representation of “regional theatre”, how it upholds the idea of a gap between London and Everywhere Else. I want to join the two up and keep that London-centric bubble that consumed me last week punctured. As part of my work with Chris Goode, I interviewed the chief executive of WYP, Sheena Wrigley, and had every assumption I held about her rigorously challenged: that she was conservative in outlook because of where she works, that she is more concerned with bums on seats than artistic ambition. So many walls have been erected between “experimental” and “challenging” and “abstruse” theatre-makers and the grown-up world of mainstream, conventional, traditional theatre. Let's smash them down. Let's stop locking theatre in boxes and start talking.

So that's the thinking behind this new adventure Jake and I are embarking upon. At the moment, we don't know for certain what we'll physically make: what we have is a constellation of dreams. I like to think of our website as a great big playground, where writers and makers and audiences alike can take turns having a turn on the merry-go-round and the swings. But I like thinking of it as “the lovechild” even more, partly because it really does come from a place of intense love for theatre and writing, and the exhilaration of new friendship and mutual support that I've found with Jake, but also because, just as any baby emits an awful lot of poo in its early days, I'm sure we will make a lot of mistakes. But then something will happen that is as joyful and surprising as a child's first silvery, gurgling laugh, and all will feel right with the world.

So here we are. Building the playground. Birthing the lovechild. Setting off fireworks. All things being equal, this will be posted on Deliq, but readers who might never have encountered my blog before will reach it from the new website. We're calling it DIALOGUE, because that's what we dream of: shared communications, bringing everyone who loves theatre together. It won't always look the way it does when it launches, but in the spirit of collaboration that will characterise everything that we do, we're following the advice of the mighty Tassos Stevens: start simple and leave space to grow.

It took just a week of thinking closely about what it is I do and want to do, who I am, where I am in the world of theatre-writing, of – God help me – theorising my practice, to make me horribly self-obsessed. So much internal analysis isn't healthy. It totally affected the way I watched Chris's astonishing piece 9 in Leeds; I'll explain how in a future piece. I never want that to happen again. If there's anything that engagement with the writings of 1970s feminists has taught me, it's that want to live very consciously – but not self-consciously.

So here we are. Let the dialogue begin.



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