There was a time when the scariest word in theatre for me was “participation”. In 2005 I was living on the same street in Oval as the former factory in which Punchdrunk were performing their breakthrough show, The Firebird Ball, and I didn’t go, because it sounded too alarming. I met Adrian Howells last year, to talk about and later take part in his one-on-one piece Unburden: a gentle, generous encounter that made me regret every moment of timidity that had kept me away from his other work. All those early shows by Ontroerend Goed? Missed them. Quite often when theatre critics write reviews of participatory theatre, they say that it requires and rewards courage in an audience-member, adventurousness, a willingness to take risks. Time and again, their phrasing has made me look at myself and think: nope. That’s not for me.
When I think about who might be in the audience for the Dialogue festival Jake and I are curating for Ovalhouse in November, I think about the person I used to be. I think about how angry with most naturalistic theatre I was, for being boring, truthless, irrelevant to the world around me. I think about my first tentative steps towards participatory work, how nervous it made me feel, to walk in a room and have another person see me, address me, respond to me. How I’ve come to cherish that connection.
There was a time when it wasn’t only theatre I didn’t participate in: I didn’t properly participate in society, either. I didn’t vote. I didn’t do any volunteering work. At school, I failed to complete a youth award scheme because it required some community service and I couldn’t be bothered. It’s not just my sense of my place in a theatre that’s changed: it’s my sense of my place in the world.
The relationship between those two senses of place is at the heart of our festival. We’ve called it Talking/Making/Taking Part because, for a weekend, that’s all what we’ll be doing. Talking about theatre and society and why they might need each other, why each matters. Making stories together, and different ways of looking at each other, and ourselves. Taking part in something other than a virulently consumerist culture. We’ve asked some brilliant people to work with us: including Andy Horwitz, the inspiration for Dialogue, who last year co-wrote one of the most impassioned and articulate arguments for the value of art I’ve encountered; Harry Giles, who plays games with Lego and sweets to get people thinking about class; Hannah Nicklin, another game-player, thoughtful and kind, capable of getting the most reluctant people to share their view on the world; Rajni Shah, whose work is dedicated to finding new ways of being, thinking and sharing together. They’re all people who won’t demand that you’re courageous or dismiss you for being unadventurous. They’re people who know vulnerability, exude patience and kindness, and understand how words like risk can inspire fear: of failure, self-exposure, insufficiency. They’re people with whom it’s possible to participate and not be scared.
We’ve been planning the festival since July, and last week we got some good news: Arts Council England has given us a Grant For the Arts, which means we can pay everyone decently to perform, provide lunch for all participants on both days, and work really hard to ensure that we reach out to people who would usually ignore an event like this. Maybe it’s because they prefer traditional theatre, or because they think it’s arty-farty, or because they don’t bother with theatre at all. Whatever the reason, we’d like to invite them to try it out.
Curating a festival feels like a curveball. It’s not what Jake and I thought we might do when we set up Dialogue. But then, we didn’t think we’d host a theatre club (thanks, Lily Einhorn, for the inspiration), have two residencies at Battersea Arts Centre, or talk to Theatre Royal Margate about starting a local theatre-going group, either. We’re regularly asked: what is Dialogue, anyway? What does it do? What is it for? The core idea remains the same: to rethink the relationships between people who make, watch and write about theatre. We ask questions about criticism, and engagement, and how theatre is marketed and discussed; we experiment with different ways of talking about theatre, writing about it, and getting people interested in it. We agitate. Not everything we try works. Sometimes it works brilliantly, but only for one or two people. Often it feels like we’re living in a future in which theatre is something people talk about as easily as television and criticism is a popular art form – then the balloon of idealism pops and we land back in the present with a crash-bang-wallop. The festival is an attempt at making the kind of theatre we’d like to live in. And through that, making the kind of world we want to live in – even for just a weekend.