Dialogue Festival/ Tanuja Amarasuriya’s Provocation

This provocation was written for Talking, Making, Taking Part in November 2014. In the many conversations I had with Maddy leading up to the festival, I was struck by her adamant commitment to seeking out comment from beyond London and beyond theatre professionals. It made me think not only about my own frustrations with theatre criticism (London-centric, artform-centric) but also about how much I need to get over my own preciousness around how theatre is judged and written about.

Maddy Costa & Jake Orr invited me to lead the festival’s Saturday discussion session, so I presented this as a personal provocation; a stepping off point for a bigger conversation. Apologies in advance for the lack of jokes.

Everyone’s Allowed

My name’s Tanuja. I’m a theatre director and producer based in Bristol.  I’m part of an organization called Theatre Bristol and our role is to make Bristol the best possible place to make and engage with live performance.

A year or so ago we started the Theatre Bristol Writers project. It’s basically an attempt to collect an ongoing body of writing in response to live performance in the city. Many different people have their articles published there and it’s curated by two writers Tom Wainwright and Richard Aslan, who are loosely in residence with Theatre Bristol (I say loosely, because the funding is an ongoing challenge.)

One of the things that is perhaps most distinctive about Theatre Bristol is that we work right across the spectrum of what might be termed theatre and we’re open to anyone who wants to be part of that. You don’t have to qualify on anyone else’s terms.

One of the results of that approach is that the writing on the Theatre Bristol Writers site comes from some very different perspectives on the form of theatre.

And when I first started reading what was being published, I thought: oh my god, some of this writing is really poor!

And then I realised – after talking to Tom Wainwright who was curating the reviews section – that it wasn’t that that writing was necessarily poor, it was more that the writer didn’t have as much knowledge about the work or its context as I might do. It didn’t meet my experience at the level I expected.

I’ll come back to that in a moment…

When I was thinking about what this provocation might be, I thought about the words in the title of this festival: Talking / Making / Taking Part. And it got me thinking about what those words meant beyond the immediate experience of an artwork. I mean, why does it matter that we talk and write about art?

I’d been interested for a long time in the fact that my mum and dad now go to see theatre pretty regularly. They actually really like it. Obviously they come and support stuff that I make, but beyond that they’re out seeing all kinds of performance off their own back.

We never went to the theatre when I was a kid. So I asked them about what had changed for them. One thing was definitely money. But there’s something more significant than money because they’d also become open to free experiences like art galleries. For them, that other significant thing is talking about the work and hearing other people talk about the work.

This matters. This matters because my Dad then told me what those conversations about art led to for him: that “they made [him] appreciate how [his] own thinking about a particular theme could change rapidly over a conversation”; and that “[he has] learnt to respect different interpretations of the same subject by different people.” These conversations were influencing the way he thought about ideas and people.

It matters because my Dad comes from Sri Lanka, a country that has been riven by a brutally divisive civil war that I don’t think anyone inside, never mind outside the country has any objective perspective on. It’s country where people I know as liberally-minded, progressive individuals suddenly become fearfully defensive and defined in opposition. It’s a community that needs more people who can appreciate that their own thinking about a particular theme can change rapidly over the space of a conversation; and more people who respect different interpretations of the same subject by different people.

Back to Theatre Bristol Writers…

About 8 months after the Theatre Bristol writers project had started, after we’d run out of money to keep it going in the way we’d intended, I got an email from one of the reviewers that said:

“The whole thing has been an amazing experience to be involved with, so it would be a shame if it didn’t have some kind of continuing life. It has also inspired me to put on my own show, which will be at the wardrobe theatre in October! Excited/terrified.”

This was someone who had never been involved with theatre before, developing her connection with theatre through writing about it to the point where she felt able to create her own show.

There’s a lot of material on the Theatre Bristol Writers site by people who don’t have much experience of critical writing; or who haven’t engaged with a wide variety of theatre forms; and that sits alongside writing by artists who have a very sophisticated understanding of a broad range of theatre practice and context. It’s a difficult thing to manage that tension between ‘openness’ and ‘quality’. It makes me nervous that there’s a lot of what I would term naïve opinion up there. But then there’s also deeply nuanced and insightful analysis up there too. And sometimes they’re even sort of a bit of both. And I love the fact that there are theatremakers, musicians, food writers, production managers, and plumbers writing about performance all on the same website.

I’d like to read you an example. This is Dave The Electrician’s review of a performance by the fantastic Holzinger & Riebeek. The show was called Spirit.

“In an alternate world where Starsky & Hutch do meals on wheels in a fiat punto for retired actors suffering from agrophobia, Karen carpenter is the CEO of weight watchers, The Beckhams set up a head shop in stokes croft & Frank Sidebottom decides he needs to be taken seriously as an artist. So he begins his quest by going on a silent retreat ashram, doing some bikram yoga, learning contemporary dance, whilst dabbling in black magic and becoming a naturist. In his search for enlightenment Frank travels to Mount Fuji and uses his black magic to conjure up himself a mate. After the honeymoon period of their relationship Frank and his new girlfriend get into a fight and slice each other up in a kill bill Tarantino-esque way. Feeling a bit shit about the way they’ve treated each other they go to Relate and do some play therapy where they discover some dark stuff about Frank’s girlfriend’s past. They then take a quick shower and the two of them realise they’ve completely gone off track in Frank’s search to become a famous performance artist. So they get there tarot cards read which tell them they need to release their fears, give up yoga for the gym and learn some new skills. Frank and his girlfriend both enrol on an aerialist course at Circomedia, learn some krumping dance moves and then watch David LaChapelle’s film Rize for some inspiration. Deciding they need their audience to understand what the fuck is going on in their show they hand out a bottle of vodka to try and get everyone pissed. Frank gets into the spirit of things and lathers himself in honey and glitter. After realising he ain’t ever gonna make any serious cash being a performance artist he gets into the Tee-shirt selling business. I’ve never really understood Frank Sidebottom. I mean anyone who hangs out with Chris Evans must be a dick but this change in direction is fucking brilliant. He looks great covered in honey and glitter, dancing around with his cock out. Also his girlfriend seems really nice.”

As soon as I saw this review go online, I knew it would wind some people up. It definitely made me double take. But this is a positive review – in the sense that I’ve spoken to Dave the Electrician and he really enjoyed this show. This is his honest response. He’s not taking the piss. He’s describing what happens in a piece of live art by using pop culture shortcuts.

But I think what wound people up was that he doesn’t ascribe any particular value or conceptual meaning to anything. He says it’s “fucking brilliant,” but there’s nothing other than the bald description to explain the value of the piece.

Dave’s voice is part of a polyphony that I’d like to hear more of in the ‘noise’ around theatre. The irreverence here is not towards the work; it’s towards the conventions of a review. This is Dave owning his response to the work rather than trying to shape his response to the prevailing terms of how we write about theatre.

A live literature producer once said to me, “we need to drink in different bars.” By which he meant: we need to hang out with people we don’t usually hang out with. I’m really glad there are a lot of informed critics out there writing articulately about performance – especially outside the mainstream press. But we can’t help but be influenced by the tone of the conversation around us, and I think the danger of just sticking to the informed and articulate is that the conversation becomes just that. And I wonder if a bit more diversity, a bit more unfiltered grit in the machine might not just invite more people to feel more able to own their individual responses on their own terms, and feel welcome in the conversation. And increasingly – as someone on the inside of the industry – I need that grit in the machine to shake me out of my own glib assumptions and conventions.

There’s an awful phrase that theatre professionals use a lot in reference to casual theatregoers: real people. “I really want to know what real people think of my work.” “Yeah, but were there any real people in the audience.” It’s a horrible term that demeans everyone; it dismisses theatremakers as phoneys and patronises non-professionals as less informed. We need to encourage everyone to own their individual responses to art. If you’ve never talked about the way something makes you feel, and the only expressions you hear about how a piece of art makes you feel, don’t align with what you actually feel… then you might very well either keep quiet or believe you’re wrong. I don’t think it’s about hearing from real people, I think it’s about hearing from more people.

And I suppose that’s the thing for me. Who is actually part of the conversation? Who feels like they are allowed to be part of this or that conversation? We can’t all be informed and articulate from the outset, and no matter how uncomfortable or annoyed it makes us feel, we shouldn’t sideline those inexpert commentators – we should make them part of the conversation. Maybe over time we can change their views. Or maybe they’ll change ours.

I’ve called this provocation ‘Everyone’s Allowed’ so I think I should shut up now and allow some other people to stick some grit in the machine.

Tanuja Amarasuriya
November 2014