Make Better Please, ARC, Stockton

By Chris M Dickson

Make Better Please is the name of a show presented by the Fuel theatre company, featuring the Uninvited Guests company as players and director. It was performed tonight at the ARC arts centre here in Stockton-on-Tees. Full disclosure: a local friend of mine wrote a preview of the show and was comped two tickets; he couldn’t attend, so I went in his place. Tickets would have been £10 (or £8 for concessions) and included a voucher for one free drink. Here are some highly preliminary thoughts after just a couple of hours’ vague reflection. As ever, this is far from being a considered review, but reflects a couple of hours’ worth of thought-dumping; sometimes I use my blog as my outboard brain.

The show is one of those partially interactive performances, inasmuch as they draw upon contributions from the audience who are invited to participate in precisely delineated fashions at certain points. My prejudice is that I am a sucker for This Sort Of Thing, having written at great length about Who Wants To Be…? previously, and taken great interest from afar in the work of Punchdrunk and the developing world of pervasive, playable theatre (Hide and Seek, The Larks, Coney and so on). Accordingly the default assumption is that it might be a bit difficult to explain, though the company’s own attempt at it is a pretty good shot.

We call on the people to gather with us, to read the day’s newspapers together, to speak and to listen.

We will give voice to the concerns of the hour!
We will question the powers that be!
We will make things better! We will make things better!

This is a town hall meeting and a radio broadcast, a public protest and the news of your world. In these times of crisis we make a collective ministry with you, our society of friends. Possessed by the spirits of corporate fat cats, cabinet ministers and media tycoons, we invoke the demons of the day, in order to banish them forever. Frothing at the mouth, we dance it out, rock out and rage on your behalf.

Each show will draw on the day’s news and will be about whatever matters to you; in it we’ll be whoever you want us to be. We’ll speak the unspeakable and do the unthinkable for you.
In practice, what it is might be considered a ritual to generate targets and develop causes for a spectacular, kinetic Two Minutes’ Hate. Arguably there’s not a lot of ritual around in these secular times, but the ritual that still exists, at its finest, most sympathetic level (for instance, a good wedding, where the ritual runs at least from stag/hen night through to honeymoon) can generate Peak Experiences for those involved. It’s fun to read about the Sunday Assembly “atheist church” and there might be analogies to be drawn.

It’s hard to know how much detail to go into what actually happens; I’ll err on the scanty side because it is such a participatory thrill, but if you want to know specifics, there are a couple of really enjoyably written write-ups that are rather heavier on the spoilers.

As all good rituals do, it starts very gently and in an accessible fashion and works its way up to an impassioned climax. The audience all sit back-stage – possibly the first head-trip for the unexpecting – about four circular tables, each holding up to ten members, bedecked with a variety of that day’s local and national newspapers. I’d hazard a guess that there were about two dozen there today, about two-thirds female-presenting, ages maybe twenty to sixty.

Over tea and biscuits, with the guidance of a facilitator from the troupe, we are given ten or so minutes in which we each pick a story that makes us angry, writing the headline down. Each participant presents their own story to the group; each group then decides on one story that particularly resonates among them en masse.

The groups then sit at the four quadrants of a circle, with gaps between the quadrants, and in turn one representative of each group briefly brings the group’s story to the performance at large. At one gap is a detuned / honky-tonk prepared piano; at the gap opposite, a drum kit.

The next step sees the performers, in turn, declare themselves to be certain prominent figures from the news, and we are posed the question “If you could say anything to e.g., Nigel Farage, what would it be?”. It’s an interesting activity in very mild public speaking, but there’s enough intimacy among the group already that the performers effectively generate a safe space. (As it happens, I espoused one of my favourite dangerous extremist political views, and they must be extremist because I only got one Like when I ran them up the flagpole on Facebook. The homophily among this particular audience was such that I got a couple of “what he said”s.) A few atonal clusters from the piano start to set the mood.

The next level sees the facilitators get us starting to think about some of the more horrific stories referenced in the newspapers, and get us to place ourselves in specific roles in those stories. No actual improv is required, just a bit of communal “think about what it must be like” – and by the third of these, pretty much everyone has at least a place in a crowd in a harrowing scenario to consider. This tension is broken by a performer going to one of the gaps in the circle and having a good old 30-second all-out primal scream. This was perhaps five or six feet away from one of my lugholes… er, yeah, thanks for that.

After that, the next level of the conceit is that we are each given the death mask of a recent obituary recipient and invited to whisper, one by one, the names of the deceased into the ear of the otherwise newsprint-hooded Charon banging at the piano with increasing frequency. While this goes on, another performer continues to prepare and desecrate the communal circle by spitting tea within, an act that apparently did succeed in generating its intended disgust among some of the audience.

From here the intensity ratchets up further, as one of the performers attempts to metaphorically morph himself into adopting the mantle of Bad News itself, a combination of all that we have declared we despise and many other good targets besides. Other performers adorn him with newsprint tools of bedevilment, and this is a several-minute sequence in which Bad News is summoned and eventually exorcised, with audience members contributing dousings of ceremonial tea to the ritual.

That description sells it very short. Suffice to say that the audience later referred to it as the “thrash metal concert” section of the piece; lights flash, the drumkit and piano are brought into full effect, all the lighting at hand (and many more lights beside) is cycled at speed, there’s plenty of smoke and running and pushing and chaos… and an exorcism, of sorts. There is no question of suspending disbelief – this is sheer theatricality, perhaps more Dr. Dre than Dr. Dee – but it is a sufficiently sensual experience that it gets over, the audience bought into it.

There is a quieter final section in which we reflect on the good news as well as the bad, and as much as we have shared stories with each other that have made us angry, we share the stories that we have seen which give us hope. The performers leave us outside for the final part of the ritual and to provide us with some closure using the headlines we identified at the start of the show before the performers disperse to the several winds. It’s a simple, neat conclusion and really satisfied me.

Does it work? It attempts the impossible, but it’s a heck of a worthwhile try. The exorcism section attempts to be all things to all people and different people will have radically different tolerances for attempted sensory overload. I can imagine some audiences actually preferring a more violent still performance, and there surely might be the scope for a tremendous piece of stagecraft if the performer somehow were to use stage magic to escape (conceal himself within a prop, perhaps?) and leave a husk of the Bad News body behind, so that Bad News might not just be driven away from the circle but literally, as well as figuratively, crushed.

There could be the temptation to engage as many different senses as possible, and I’m wondering if the ritual section might be more participative still. (I’m thinking of the Grand Finale of the Blue Man Group shows here to demonstrate the state of the art, even twenty years back, for a high level of completely benign sensory mayhem… though they have hundreds, or thousands, times the budget.) There are sensual routes that I’m very glad that the show chose not to go down, and I have a suspicion that a reviewer who set out to be grizzled and cynical might consider parts of it a little, well, undergraduate in its attempts to shock.

The show also racks up points for technical accomplishment through deliberately seeking to surround us with stimuli from all four sides and for so quickly responding to our input. The act of recording us supplying our hopeful stories and playing them back to us a little later is a simple one, but they got it right first time (tick!) and it worked well in context. A spirited and admirable job all round from the performers, both the ones throwing themselves completely into their work within the circle and those mixing the mayhem without it.

While the whole package might not completely, to use what can only be a hand-wave-y verb, work, and it may well not be physically possible for it ever to do so, choosing to consider all the things the show does right, I pretty much loved it. There’s scope in the slightly loose format for all sorts of interesting things to happen.

There was a reasonable degree of consensus among the broadly rather socially liberal audience as to sources of annoyance in the media; on another day, the first group to present its communal source of anger might happen to be annoyed by one story and the second group might happen to have radically dissimilar political leanings, possibly even being angered by the same story but from the opposite perspective. A single performance of the show cannot demonstrate all the tricks required in terms of setting up a list of targets to skewer and include within Bad News, but a radically split audience might be really difficult to deal with. I sort of want to see it happen, once, but I don’t want to feel it.

This review would not be a complete reflection of all the things that affected my feelings about the show, without awarding generous but well-deserved extra credit for a couple of other aspects of the show as distinct from the performance.

After the conclusion of the ritual, probably about three-quarters of the audience gathered in the bar at tables marked (IIRC) “Theatre Dialogue Club”* and good-naturedly talked about what did and didn’t work for them. It was fascinating, it demonstrated the backgrounds of many of the audience members (plenty had something of a professional interest, to a greater or lesser extent!) and I would be delighted if it were to happen after every performance ever. It also gave me an impression that the audience I was in were also a benevolent, supportive audience to have shared the experience with. Very good company.

Huge bonus points also for the programme. One sheet of newsprint, possibly Berliner (i.e. Guardian) size, but the inside has detailed instructions for holding your own Make Better meeting yourself, fully in keeping with the participative nature of the performance. They look like they’ve been written by people who know a lot about the practice of active listening, too. The back page also has a huge list of influences, far too many of which I do not recognise but which I am tempted to explore. That’s got to be worth considering for best practice.

The show is not for the photosensitive (no strobing on this occasion, but nevertheless I fear it must trigger the Shiny Alert) or those likely to respond to deliberately strong stimuli for other senses. (I think I would have liked to see some warning at the start of the presentation, too.) Likewise, the unusually empathetic or easily distressed may not enjoy the call to proactive consideration of those in distress and anger, and I think some sense of irreverence towards religion is also necessary. The show was billed as suitable for 12+; in general, I tend to believe age ranges tend to be usually fairly conservatively set, but I suspect I would have been too shrinking a violet for this until somewhat into my teens.

I cannot understand the business model, or the business model of any show with a good half-dozen staff and which can only cater for possibly 40 audience members at a time. Sure, it’s far from the most extreme case – I love reading about shows for audiences of one – but it’s remarkable that it has come around the country. At one level, artists care about art first and business model second, but people gotta eat. (And people like me who only go because they’ve been comped a ticket don’t help at all, I’m sure.)

Comparisons are invidious; if this is the sort of thing that you think you might like, I think it’s well worth a try in practice. I can’t say whether it’ll work for you or not, but it’s a really interesting shot at the very least. Perhaps I might have to only award it a figurative 4½ loaves and 1¾ fish because I can’t see it having rocked my world quite as much as some other shows, but it was easily good enough for me to be very well-disposed towards giving Fuel and Uninvited Guests a go the next time they want to try something interesting and damn the consequences.

* Dialogue Theatre Club is another project I (Maddy) do, for more information visit:
http://www.welcometodialogue.com/

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