An introduction by Maddy Costa: Megan Vaughan is my favourite writer on theatre; whenever I run writing workshops, I always take something by her with me, as an indication to aspiring writers of what they can reach towards. Sometimes I think my sense of affinity with her might come from a similarity in background: we both came to writing about theatre via music, and fanzines, and carry the irreverent reverence that music inspires with us at all times.
I invited Megan to write for this blog thinking she might focus on how important it is for contemporary theatre to tour and be made outside the UK’s big cities: she grew up in Cheshire, so knows much better than me (a born Londoner) what it is to feel that the excitements of art are out of reach. But, she told me, she couldn’t find a way to do so without feeling like a dick. Instead, she’s written in a more subtle way about audiences, how we approach what we know, and how we approach what we don’t. Useful thinking when applied to a company like Fuel, whose tagline promises “fresh work for adventurous people”.
By Megan Vaughan
I went to a gig last week. An Actual Music Concert, like the young’uns do. On a school night as well. He didn’t even start until half nine. It was great. Mark Eitzel in a church, just him and his guitar and a bunch of songs that he sang to us. Such simple, effective plotting. Nothing tricksy or pretentious. He’d clearly taken a lot from the alternative theatre scene, because even when he spoke to us between songs he was just playing himself. Some people might call this a particularly extreme approach to the Method, total immersion in a character for, well, for a whole lifetime, but there was also something beautifully simple about his portrayal of the self-deprecating singer-songwriter. At the heart of this one-man show was an autobiographical truth.
The design of the staging felt natural and unobtrusive too (I understand a collaborative team of community artists had been working together on the production since its location, St Pancras Church, was first established as a site of worship in the fourth century) and yet made a significant contribution to the emotional resonance of Eitzel’s performance. I can only hope that the right people got to see this work, and it is appropriately recognised come awards season.
It’s the audience that I want to talk about here though. I’d forgotten about audiences at gigs. Eight or nine years ago I was at five gigs a week. More than that even. It’s amazing what you forget.
I was just so… aware of them. Not because they were badly behaved. Far from it. This was an entirely respectful crowd, quiet and attentive, barely a mobile phone in sight. It was a generous crowd too. When Eitzel chatted to us between songs, retuned and rifled through lyric sheets, everyone clapped and laughed and gave all the signals – imperceptible when isolated but significant when multiplied – that they were having a good time. There was a collective wish to encourage. Even when he apologised for missing a note or acknowledged that a recent review had called him “indulgent” or explained that a certain song was written when he was young and drunk and a full-time wanker or even just cracked a joke that wasn’t really that funny, we wanted him to know that we still liked him. Sitting in a room full of Mark Eitzel fans, only half-knowing the one “indulgent” song, I was suddenly really aware that everyone around me had his back. We think you’re great, they said, with their strange exaggerated behaviour, and we want you to know it.
Theatre audiences are such arseholes sometimes, aren’t we? I know I am. I’m a right dick. Sitting there in the dark in our smug clothes and our smug conversations levelling our singular, interrogating, smug gaze. Sitting there like “go on then, impress me”.
There’s even that line in This Is How We Die by Christopher Brett Bailey. It’s at the jissum bit, where he repeats the word over and over: “I said it many many times and she didn’t really laugh either.” In the text he has brackets around the “either”, like he’s holding a door for us, giving us the chance to give something of ourselves; to relax, to enjoy a rude word for its simple linguistic naughtiness, but also to get behind him, and to support him in the labour of his performance. Just by laughing. Just by fucking laughing, you po-faced fucks.
I’m being harsh. Should take some of my own medicine probably. I mean, some of my best friends are theatre audiences. Of course many people laugh at the jissum scene of This Is How We Die. I’ve probably seen him say that “either” more often than not, but let’s not pretend it isn’t a crowd-pleasing section of the text. And we wouldn’t be at the theatre in the first place if we didn’t believe it could offer us enjoyment and enrichment. Fair dos. This piece was never meant to be about laughing. It actually comes from some wishy-washy thoughts I’ve been having, following Reformation 9 by Luther and Bockelson, about the way audiences perform.
Luther and Bockelson are not real. Andy Field has made them up. I would not ordinarily have told you that (spoilers!) but it looks like the pair have been retired. They lived for but a few short shows, first at The Yard this spring, as part of their NOW festival of new work, and then for one night last month at Forest Fringe in Edinburgh. Except they didn’t live at all, because Reformation 9 was just Andy repeatedly reading us their fabricated manifesto while we explored the freedoms it had granted us. On our seats had been placed envelopes, and in them, all sorts of shit: plastic farmyard animals, sparklers, hazard tape, AV cables, drumsticks, a photocopied excerpt of Waiting For Godot, all the pieces from which to build a scale model of the Brandenburg Gate. Toys, basically. Toys to facilitate creative play. And boy did we play.
There is lots of interactive theatre in the world and there are lots of people around to tell you how empowering that is for an audience who can enjoy some autonomy for a change. But so much of that work is so guided, so structured. Take my hand, follow me, sit here, say this. In Reformation 9 it felt like we could do whatever we wanted, get as involved as we wanted, tape up the fire exit and run round with naked flames if we wanted. When Andy left the room between cycles, we’d co-ordinate ourselves to be as disruptive as possible: block his route to the microphone, shout over him, cut up his clothes, tear up the manifesto, replace it with the Evening Standard’s review of The Twits. Ultimately we exhausted ourselves and took our seats again, quietly listening. There was to be no great revolution that night, but we were cool with that. Here was a show where the most supportive thing we could do for the artist was go totally fucking off-the-hook mental. I loved it. I adored it. It was all my Christmases come at once. It was a double-yolked egg, an all-chocolate Kit-Kat. If I was a moth, then it was my flame. If I was a pig, it was my pool of shit.
When I became hyper-aware of Mark Eitzel’s audience last week, looking on like proud soccer moms at the side of the pitch, straight away it made me think of my Reformation 9 experience. I’d heard that Andy’s performance at Forest Fringe hadn’t been received so well, that the venue had had greater operational restrictions than the Yard, and that there had been too many people there to allow everyone to find their own path through the work. The energy in the room was somehow shifted. I tried to imagine how the Eitzel gig would have been altered if the people around me were all in the middle of an exhausting festival marathon, jacked up on energy drinks and star ratings. Distracted, exhausted, pissed. I tried to imagine how different it would be if, instead of Eitzel’s crowd willing him on while forgiving him his wobbles, they were sitting back like… “Go on then, impress me”.
What if generosity of spirit isn’t the neutral state here? What if cynicism is our default? What do we do about that? Since when has any of this been the audience member’s responsibility? I’ve bought a ticket, travelled across town, given up two hours of my time, and now you’re telling me it’s my job to make myself have a good time as well? I’m sorry, what?
On Saturday afternoon I went to see The Win Bin at the Old Red Lion in London. I had been attracted by the premise (a Hunger Games-style contest for the last paid job in the arts) plus a couple of decent reviews, but there were only a handful of us there. It was a funny show, without the satirical bite that I really wanted, but the two performers were excellent, each taking on multiple roles with razor-sharp timing. And I found myself performing for them; in the front row, smiling broadly, laughing extra loud. Wanting them to know I was on their side.
This is great. You’re doing great.
Megan Vaughan is a blogger from Cheshire, now based in London. She blogs at synonymsforchurlish.tumblr.com and tweets as @churlishmeg.