from my friend Tom Ross-Williams.
I like what he has to say, and I love that he’s young and political.
Now you can like/love it too :
Looking through the photographs taken from my roof, our party roof, the roof of our ridiculously but appropriately named House of Love I feel frustrated and impotent. I am in the middle of an 11-day sojourn in Tuscany as a private tutor for a Russian family. I tell myself it’s a necessity which monetarily, at the moment, it is and I persuade myself, to off-set my guilt, that it’ll be beneficial as I can do my own work, my real work in my spare time. I’ve been in the process of setting up this theatre company, Populace, for four months now with a research & development period planned in the spring at The Junction. It all looks very promising. The aim for the company is to explore the ways to repoliticise theatre and use it as a tool to respond to the current political climate and the increasing sense of social unrest.
But in my villa in Italy, without another English-speaking person, let alone anyone who knows me from London, I couldn’t feel more removed from my Hackney roof. But what makes me even sadder and more frustrated is that I’m not sure my “real” work is even relevant at a time like this.
Reading people like Chris Goode’s and Stella Duffy’s blogs inspires and emboldens me – that there are people involved in theatre whom I so admire that are able to communicate my sentiments towards these recent events so eloquently. Chris Goode rightly asserts that he “very much [doesn’t] want this to turn into a theatre-related post” and has prevented the option to comment. But despite the fact that I’m not wholly sure why I’m writing this, I do want to comment. I know we don’t need another person to add to the hoards of personal responses to events which “affected” them in some way. But I need to think about the arts at a time like this, as it is what I know I believe in and am more passionate about than anything else. And yet it feels so insignificant.
I am grateful to those like Dan Baker whose blog responds to the riots by advocating the importance of theatres to increase their access and to keep events such as these in the cultural consciousness, but for some reason it makes me cringe slightly. I appreciate the sentiment but it seems like trying to save a drowning vessel through words of encouragement.
There are a couple of very timely things going on in theatre at the moment including the NYT’s Our Days of Rage at the Old Vic Tunnels which addresses the Arab Spring and undoubtedly has the most diverse participation of any theatre company in the UK. It’ll certainly be one of the few pieces of theatre performed by people of the age of the rioters and I’m sure it’s more likely that this cast might know some of the disenfranchised young people who participated in last week’s troubles, than in any other company. So, perhaps, Our Days of Rage might be able to actually address the current social unrest by reaching an audience that theatre isn’t normally able to.
The only other example I can think of theatre that’s claiming (and actually has the potential) to respond to the riots is A Clockwork Orange at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. It’s a new production with a non-white cast and it’s one of the very few theatres that succeeds in attracting many first-time theatre-goers, and has an audience that isn’t predominately middle-class. Again, it certainly seems to be a happy coincidence (of course it was programmed many months ago) but it has now been catalysed by recent events and so catapulted into the current political milieu.
However, even these examples feel somewhat passive. With Populace I want to explore the nature between direct action and theatre. I detest the dismissal of “protest as theatre” as it immediately aligns theatre with something apolitical. Surely all theatre has the potential to be political, as Harold Pinter mentioned in his Nobel address. But perhaps what infuriates me so much about this phrase is that for the majority of the time, it is perhaps all too apt. I doubt very much if Betrayal could incite revolution – not that theatre needs to do so but it is very different saying that theatre’s political and actually seeing the ramifications. Direct action and modern-day theatre almost seem antithetical. Of course there are historic examples, usually arising in oppressive regimes, such as Augusto Boal in Brazil or Brecht’s Baden Lehrstucks in 1930s Germany. But if theatre in the UK tried to recreate such a reaction, surely it would just seem trite?
On the days following the riots, I tried to think of what artistic pursuit I could do that wouldn’t seem, if you’ll excuse the pun, hackneyed. I thought about constructivist art, and how perhaps during the clean-up one could collect some of the detritus and create something – a statue or a monument that would not only serve to commemorate but also add to the local community from the very stuff which had been torn apart. But this is not theatre. And I’m not sure the product would be particularly effective, but the process of a community working together to make it would surely be beneficial. Although, from what I have heard, the clean-up had very much the same effect.
But theatre can bring communities together as The National Theatre of Wales so brilliantly proved with Passion earlier this year. But at a real time of crisis, how can the arts respond in an effective, thought-provoking manner that reaffirms their importance in today’s society? We must neither glorify nor merely reconstruct but utilise the impact that theatre can have to empower its audience, ignite flames under their seats and force people into action. But how and if this is possible, at the moment, I’m not all too sure.
Wow. This comes today when I have been struggling to write an updated mission statement for Red Ladder that says we want to make theatre which is a form of direct action or which provokes audiences to take action! Theatre which asks ‘which of you will stand up?’. Tom … we need a festival of radical theatre!
is this the kind of thing you mean, Rod?
(written to be a performed monologue) :
“But at a real time of crisis, how can the arts respond in an effective, thought-provoking manner that reaffirms their importance in today’s society? We must neither glorify nor merely reconstruct but utilise the impact that theatre can have to empower its audience, ignite flames under their seats and force people into action. But how and if this is possible, at the moment, I’m not all too sure. ”
I think that there are two questions there. One of reaffirming the arts, the other consciously engaging in collective activity that seeks to remedy the systemic structural and cultural causes of current crisis. Both have several dimensions that when outlined can proffer some steps towards remedy. These are political, philosophical, pragmatic.
For example Boals positon is clear. Is grounded in Marxian perspective of genuine social tension but with a pronounced Ferierian/Feminist view that liberation has its core in an processes that faciliate a conscious reimagining of ourselves,and placing our personal experiences within a wider context of historical social/economic/political/cultural forces. Wether one agrees or not with these perspectives is not as important that recognition that how one percieves the ranges of interrelated problems – of art and activism, of critically engaged theatre and the arts generally, of particaption and power, the pragmatical requirements of modes of practice etc- is in the first instance at least, one of orientation towards society. What do we believe in, however vague that may be. What utopian desires for my society, my community, my class,my gender, my sex life shape my creativity. These of course are not static, but they are beginning points.
Im not really an artists, im an activist myself, but questions of critical engagement, of social movements practice are what leads me to think there are similarities.
Thanks for this. Your reply reminds me of another of Chris Goode’s maxims that theatre is “a place where we figure out how to live together better.” And so in that in that very act, art and activism are always intrinsically linked.