Power to the (theatre) people

This is the first in a short series of backstage pieces connected to a project I did for Fuel looking at some historical precedences to NTiYN: ways in which theatre-makers, venues, and their staff, have approached the questions of audience engagement since, roughly, the 1930s. Inevitably the interviews I did gave me more material than I could possibly use, so I’m going to post up a few of the transcripts which, while edited, contain a lot more detail than I could fit in the final essay. Called The Neighbourhood Watch, the essay is available to download on the Fuel website.

In this first post, I talk to Anna Reading: playwright, feminist and professor of culture and creative industries at King’s College London.

M: Where shall we start?

A: Probably the easiest thing initially is to talk about my work with Strip Search Theatre, which was a theatre company we founded in 1987 in York. It was part of the political scene then: I think for me the idea of a good night out is very much linked with the politics of a particular kind of theatre that I personally believe in, and lots of us then were involved in it and still are. For me, theatre goes hand in hand with thinking about what it is you want to change in society and knowing that theatre is part of an assemblage of acts: theatre will do a bit of it, the law will do a bit of it, social groups will do other bits.

The principles with Strip Search theatre were to make sure that the performers were taken care of, and that audiences were also taken care of. Care of the audience took place from them approaching the theatre: they were given information as they went in about local groups they could contact and so on, which again were new. Rape Crisis was founded then, and I was one of the founder members in York. If I take one example, there was a play that we did in 1987, Kiss Punch Goodnight, which I’d written, which was about child sexual abuse in the 1970s: the reason that’s all come out now is because of the 2010 law on historic sexual abuse, but at that point there wasn’t even a language really to describe these things. There were 13 performers involved, all women, and we didn’t know when we worked with actors what their experiences were: it might be that they had experienced this. So it was about having those conversations – then they were also able to have those conversations with members of the audience.

The conversations that we had afterwards were really important. They were important for the actors because it was gruelling for them: one of the things we always did to take care of the actors was that they took their costumes off and became themselves again in front of the audience, and then sang a song which just said we’re together on this, so there was a process of cleansing that was in front of the audience. The audience then approached the conversation with the performers not as “the father who’d done the abuse” but the person who has acted this part.

Another similar project was called the Want Project. One of my first jobs was working at the university of Lodz in Poland in 1988: it was a time of communism collapsing and I was working with Polish feminists doing interviews with women to see what they thought about what was happening. As the revolutions happened I realised that women’s issues were going to get lost, so we got some money from the British Council and agreed that the theatre project that we would do, the Want Project, would tour cities in Britain and Poland. In Poland we linked it to something called Klobiet, and helped establish a network of women’s clubs, nascent feminist clubs. So people would go to the performance, they would become concerned after the performance about, for instance, the rescinding of the law on abortion, which was one of the things that the play tackles through the characters of three Polish women, and then from that they would begin to think about what can we do in our community.

I feel very strongly that theatre is there to entertain but it’s also there to provoke: that’s the privilege of being there live. And if you provoke you have a responsibility to enable people to have the next set of tools that they might need to do something about it. That’s the difference between, say, theatre and sitting back and watching the news on TV: so much of our lives are spectacular in that we’ll watch something horrific happening, we’ll feel bad about it and we won’t do anything about it because we feel we can’t – but it seems to me theatre can and that’s the whole point. But you still need to enable people themselves to see what resources they’ve got to do something further about it: that is part of taking care of people, that is part of a good night out, is this sense of empowerment, a feeling that you’ve connected with something, somebody. So it’s not just about putting money in a box, it’s about feeling alive in your life. Capitalism is so much about deadening people to become machines in what we do, and so it’s about enlivening us: theatre enable us to feel, and what do we do with that feeling? We want action from it.

M: It’s interesting that you frame that with words like care and responsibility: they’re things I often feel I don’t see in theatre. I had a conversation with someone recently about the play Violence and Sons at the Royal Court – a play that looks at casual and inherited misogyny, and the verbal and sexual violence against women resulting from it – who said they felt weird and wrong clapping the depiction of date rape at the end, but there was no conversation or space to process it, and nowhere else for those feelings to go.

I wonder whether that lack of space comes from an embarrassment, or a desire for today’s theatre to keep its distance from a kind of theatre that we might frame as educational or issue-based. You’re describing a period of feminist theatre, and gay theatre, in which those things were publicly declared: I wonder how much people feel confident or nervous around that declaration now.

A: I think it’s part of the whole trajectory since the 1980s, to depoliticise and disempower people. In a sense that’s what needs to be reclaimed. Part of the cash nexus which we’ve seen rolled out into the arts – and into education – since the late 1980s means that if we’re not careful we talk about audiences as customers: but an audience is an audience, it’s not a customer, just as somebody who comes to study is not a customer, they’re a student, that’s who they want to be in that transaction, if you like. We talk about value in terms of these cash-based transactions, when actually there’s something that’s so much more. The value of something is like throwing a pebble in a lake, the ripples will have all sorts of impacts we don’t know of, and being aware of that is really important.

In the 80s and 90s fringe theatre was seen to be a really positive force. It became depoliticised for all sorts of reasons and I think some of that territory really does need to be reclaimed. It’s about opening up a dialogic space – and making use of those spaces that are not usual theatre spaces. In the 80s and 90s, as a performer in those spaces, performing in pubs, people came up and talked to me directly and I realised that my understanding of theatre was not what people in that local community saw as theatre, because they hadn’t been to the theatre before. So I think that’s really important, that sense of involving people in theatre in different ways. Museums do this really well: they’ve moved from this idea of the museum space as one with walls to the museum without walls, and theatres are doing that more and better: the theatre-going audience are very used to using social network media, so it’s about making sure that we do that well – but that we also don’t exclude those people that don’t do that.

M: How long did Strip Search last?

A: We were doing stuff all through the 90s, and I’ve carried on writing where I can. Now I see it as integrated in what I do at the university. During my research leave I really want to think about the archive of work, because I think it’s really important: I don’t mean from an egotistical point of view, but because it was an extraordinary era in terms of things that were done and made and experiences that people had. You talk about earlier historical precedences for New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood and sometimes I do feel a bit frustrated that people are doing things which I think: ‘Actually this was done a long time ago, you just need to refer back to that history.’ Particularly as feminists actually: we’re very good at forgetting, we’re not very good at remembering.

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