by Pip Williams
About a week ago, in the good old days, I fully intended to write an article about three shows I saw at Camden People’s Theatre from 6th-12th March as part of their Sprint Festival.
The article was going to be called “What Are All These People Doing Here?” and it was going to be about audiences, specifically the roles that the shows I saw cast the audience in, the level of autonomy the shows gave the audience, and why that may or may not have been useful or challenging in a dramaturgical or more broadly political sense.
The shows I saw, by the way, were Shepard Tone’s Coming Out of My Cage (And I’ve Been Doing Just Fine), Nathan Ellis’ work.txt and Anorak’s Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow. For the record I loved them all, for different and complex reasons, and I’m lucky enough to be able to call a few of the people who made these shows friends and acquaintances.
Anyway, I wrote about three quarters of that article and it was pretty good, even if I felt a bit funny writing reviews of shows by people who were friends or at least direct contemporaries, age-wise, and even if it was starting to seem a bit ironic or uncomfortable writing about live theatre at a time when people were starting to be advised to maybe not go to it so much.
I opened the article with what I thought was a very intelligent and witty observation about an amateur production of The Winter’s Tale that I saw my aunt, uncle and cousin in nearly two weeks ago now (if you can imagine), because there was a child actor in it who kept looking at the audience despite all the grownup actors pretending we weren’t there, and I thought that was a pretty good prism through which to look at audience interaction, what we expect from a theatre show, what we expect to do in a theatre, etc etc, clever old me.
I then went through the shows and did a sort of quick look at each of them and how they treated their audiences, and the different sorts of theatrical environment they sought to create; Coming Out… was theatre-as-party, I suggested; work.txt was theatre-as-work; and EPCOT was theatre-as-thought-experiment, though I never quite got to the end of that paragraph, for the following reasons.
On the 16th March, basically every theatre in London closed as a result of the coronavirus, in an effort to stop it spreading and prevent endangering millions of vulnerable lives. Though unquestionably the right decision on the part of the theatres (because, in a spectacular move by our glorious leaders, it became their decision and not a proper government mandate because, to put it bluntly, Boris Johnson Does Not Care About You) it meant basically all my friends and myself faced sudden, total unemployment and possible bankruptcy. As did the whole theatre industry seemingly.
And suddenly it went from being a bit uncomfortable or a bit surreal to be writing about the power of the audience, the need to have groups of people in rooms, to being unbelievably churlish and insensitive.
I considered just finishing the article and treating it as a sort of period piece, maybe putting a thoughtful little postscript at the end, looking back with newly-minted nostalgia for when the playhouses were open or something. But I could not find the energy or the will to do that. Because I felt/feel really really sad about there being no theatres, about all my projects falling through, about my friends’ livelihoods being endangered and me losing both my jobs in one afternoon.
In short, I didn’t/don’t particularly feel like being clever or wry or whatever.
So what I’m going to do, if you’ll allow me, is go back through those three shows and try and consider what use they might have for us right now. How we can take their challenges and provocations and use them or meditate on them in the coming, difficult, lonely weeks. And I’m going to try and not be too nostalgic or soppy, because the theatres will fucking open again, we will have projects and shows with audience participation and shows without audience participation and shows with small children and shows with actors who went to RADA and actors who work in banks, and it’ll be an entirely different world that we view and make those plays in. And so we need to be clear and rigorous about what we want that theatre to do. And who we are within it.
So, Coming Out… I went to see with my sister as my birthday present to her. It’s an interactive show about the enduring popularity of The Killers’ Mr Brightside, performed with wide-eyed charisma by Hannah Follows and Tim Chapman.
Coming Out… is a show without a bad bone in its body. It is an ongoing exercise in finding commonality, in discovering what we all share. It is a show about song, and crucially about large groups of people singing, and singing together. It is a show about community.
In a series of gentle instructions and provocations, we’re told to close our eyes, then “open up [our] eager eyes” (which my sister enjoyed every single time) in response to certain questions- to open our eyes if we’d prefer to be remembered as kind rather than successful, for example, or to look at someone in the room you’d like to say hi to. They are exercises in finding common ground- they emphasise the fact that we have all, separately, made the decision to come to this building at this time because of a thing we all like. Fundamentally it emphasises the fact that, actually, it should be fun to be in a theatre- that we’re sitting here because of what we share. We are in a room where we can play loud music, watch videos and make the lights go all flashy. It is right and proper for the theatre to be fun. And, as Hannah suggests at one point, “the theatre can be a good place to meet people”. It’s a social activity, and Coming Out… really emphasises that idea. It is a show geared towards our, the audience’s, enjoyment- we are rewarded generously for simply being there, guided gently to look at what we all have in common and to sing.
Part of the show charts Hannah and Tim attempting to find a legendary karaoke singer who gets up every week, dressed as Brandon Flowers, and sings Mr Brightside at a karaoke night in a Northern pub. It would be so easy for this portion of the show to descend into poking fun at smaller regional communities, at trying to find a comic figure so that we can all have a bit of a laugh at a village eccentric of some sort. But instead Hannah and Tim search with real dedication and commitment- they are clearly eager to broaden the sharing, to track with honesty the love that this song (which we all, gathered together in CPT, know and love) spreads. And when they do track her down, the response is not snickering or caricature, but a genuinely heart-warming story of how one individual brought a community together, and of how one song, one piece of art, can unite people.
In the original draft of this article I issued a sort of challenge to Shepard Tone because, as established, I’m a terrible person with no self-awareness; I complained that the audience participation didn’t feel high-stakes enough, that we should be granted more autonomy as audience members and there should be greater consequences for us joining in.
But in hindsight, forget that. It’s a show about how art belongs to groups and not individuals, about how an artist creates something and it is given life by groups, communities. There’s a sound clip of Brandon Flowers at the end, saying how the song doesn’t belong to him anymore but to all the people who sing it, all the crowds who chant it with him.
And that’s something we need to take forward from Shepard Tone, maybe. That theatre is community. It is an art form based on community. A piece of art is a baby we raise together, that we unriddle and share and live with together, in the theatre building, yes, but in bars and bedrooms and seminars and coffee shops, together, for hours and days and years afterwards. It is enough for a show to bring a group of likeminded people together and establish that we are all there for the same reason. To make us known to each other and to create the rooms where we can be together, be with each other and maybe just sing together.
Then I did a clever thing where I ended that paragraph with “But then maybe it’s not the place of theatre to make us do the work” and began the next one with “OR IS IT???” which I thought would be quite sort of funny and endearing and now looks utterly moronic, so thanks for that.
In Nathan Ellis’ work.txt the audience was cast in a wholly different role, and we were invited instead to work, to labour for our enjoyment; the show will not go ahead if we do not. Taking the form of a series of instructions, provocations and prompts, work.txt is a play with no actors, performed entirely by the audience.
It is a piece ostensibly about the gig economy, about how late capitalism has effectively blurred the lines between work and pleasure, and how technology has rendered the two inseparable (we can check our social media at the office, we can shop for clothes on our work computers, we can buy expensive coffees at our places of work), but it’s also a subtle and wry look at the place art has in that world; should art be the absence of labour, something distracting and relaxing in a busy and hectic time? Or should it be something we wrestle with using our creative brains, something we really have to engage with, something we work to understand?
Certainly work.txt seems to think the latter- it’s a series of what might loosely be termed scenes, but which are really a series of creative engagements, games, almost, which require the audience to read text displayed via a powerpoint, or on pieces of paper from a printer, or pumped into their ears via headphones for them to repeat (I had to do that one on the night I went and it is so, so much harder than you think it is). Put basically, a series of tasks for the audience to accomplish.
Like Coming Out…it presents a series of provocations to find what we have in common- pieces of text to be read by “People Who Like Swimming”, or “Geminis” or “Someone Who Doesn’t Like Experimental Theatre”. This switches between groups and individuals in a genuinely exciting and often very funny way, gradually inching us towards a place where we are given the instruction “A member of the audience comes onstage”. To introduce this element too early would be to scare us off, to prioritise only the most confident or stage-happy audience members, but Ellis manages to cook the room at just the right temperature and for just long enough to create a truly collaborative and ultimately very playful atmosphere.
“We’re here to share in an experience”, we all say together. “This is fun!” And, as when we sing Mr Brightside in Coming Out…, we are reminded that the theatre is a communal space, a shared space. We are invited to work together, to reveal things about ourselves, to create a theatrical world based on our own various-ness.
But why the hell should we do that? In one particularly witty “scene”, an art critic talks to a gallery attendant about modern art, only to be interrupted by someone visiting the gallery (all three are obviously played by audience members) complaining that art shouldn’t be hard work, they work hard enough already- “I want to see a Monet!” It’s the show’s central question- why should we have to work hard for art? Why should art not do the work for us? Simply, because we live in a world where everything is work. Where we are doing work every second of our days, be that financially, be that physically, be that mentally. Like a mantra, we are instructed to repeat “Work is being done”. All work.txt does is lay this bare, remind us that even in a theatre we are doing work of a sort, the work of not-working. The work of having fun.
Ultimately it is a show that eats itself, a show directly at odds with its own M.O- while nothing happens unless the audience works, while we are given the illusion of autonomy, we are still in reality at the mercy of the text we are given and that we read. We are active participants, creating the world of the show, but it is a world already built for us. The decisions are only our own up to a point.
It’s interesting that one of the hardest “scenes” to physically perform is the one with the headphones (where two audience members are given headphones and instructed to repeat what the voice in the headphones says, with varying degrees of success in my case), which is a scene between a couple relaxing on a cruise ship. The hardest work we do is to enact not-working. The most alien thing to us is total freedom.
The piece ends with the printer reading out, in automated, Fitter Happier tones, all the things that happen when work finally finishes, an increasingly absurd litany of surreal cataclysms, like God taking voluntary redundancy and the universe retiring because it’s too big. Work ending is not something we can get our brains around. Work ending is life as we know it ending.
Again, the above paragraph came from the earlier draft of this article, when the idea of not-working still seemed utterly bizarre and alien. Now, of course, almost everyone I know is stuck in their kitchens either working from home or painfully, anxiously waiting for something to work on from home (I am of this party).
So I suppose what we can take from work.txt is that we are not beings made simply for work. A huge part of the show which I’ve neglected to discuss is a central act of protest- a person (with the name of a randomly selected audience member, naturally) lies down in the lobby of a big building and refuses to get up. It baffles two of her co-workers. It prompts a rhapsody about modern art and meaning from the art critic. And still “work is being done”, relentlessly and continuously.
But it is normal to want to stop. It is our right to lie down and stop. And what this act represents, in work.txt, is how disruptive and powerful it can be to stop, to opt out, to have had enough. In work.txt we, the audience, are given the means of production, if you will, and empowered to stand up and play an active part. And though we are playing an active part in, as I’ve said, a pre-existing structure, it becomes incumbent on us to move things forward, to drive the action of our enjoyment. It empowers us to feel like we are sufficient. That we can rely on ourselves and each other to create something meaningful. The power to start something is as present within us as the power to stop it, and both are powerful and meaningful actions.
Work.txt is work for us. So is everything else. But it is up to us how we spend our energy. Yes, work is always being done, but what work we do is up to us.
If we are invited to watch the world end in work.txt, we are invited to build it again in Anorak’s Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow (henceforth EPCOT), a slight, tender little piece that has only grown in my estimation in the last couple of days.
More a thought experiment than a play, the start of a conversation rather than a thing we experience as observers, I’d argue that EPCOT casts us, the audience, as a kind of focus group, a collective of creators, as, under the gentle guidance of James Nash and Hannah-Louise Batt, we are invited to picture the future, a future that takes place after we have left the theatre and gone to bed, a future that takes place within our individual imaginations and yet seems to come to life before our very eyes.
The whole show is addressed to “you” (that is, us), couched in a maybe-state, an endearingly deferential future conditional. “What do you think the future looks like?”, we are asked, and later, more clearly, and maybe more angrily, “What do you want?” (but more on that later).
James and Hannah lay out a collection of objects (empty bottles, floppy discs, cardboard boxes) and we are invited to map our version of the future onto them. It’s a slyly powerful device, and certain images still stay with me; a perspex box slowly filling with steam from a humidifier; the shock of a cardboard tower suddenly falling; the glowing white orb that takes centre stage, a warm little electronic planet. We realise how quickly we as humans map stories onto things, how fast and adaptable the human imagination is. There is beautiful care in the way James and Hannah set out these perfectly ordinary little objects, and create their world, and it is a care that radiates through the piece, short as it is. My abiding sense memory of it is of profound warmth, a gentle and unforced intimacy that envelops us, draws us in, and creates a room where we can genuinely think and imagine together. It is meditative. It is almost, if you’ll forgive me, spiritual.
But that’s not to say it lets us off the hook, or is purely an exercise in relaxing a room full of people. James and Hannah tell us two subtly different stories about the future we could wake up in; James’ future is a sort of endless, carbon-less, socialist utopia, where destructive systems have been toppled and humanity is reconciled to itself; Hannah’s is no less politically idealistic, arguably, but is socially lonely, a far off and alien time dominated by lost friendships and a befuddled nostalgia for a barely remembered past. In one desperately sad image, Hannah, in a futuristic museum, looks into a glass case and sees a polaroid (itself, even in 2020, a relic of a past most of us don’t remember) of her and her friend, the friend now long gone, hundreds of years in the past, their friendship now an artefact.
“What do you want?” we’re asked at the end, “What do you want?”. It’s the most confrontational and forceful part of the show, but it’s only right that we be asked it; if we are being asked to imagine the future, and indeed to collaborate imaginatively in the creation of it, it is right that we ask serious questions of ourselves. Is it progress that we want? The exponential advancement of the human race, the creation of a politically, ecologically perfect superworld that we tend like gardeners? Or is it something a bit more like the present? Is it a safe place where we have all the things we have now but don’t have to worry about them? Forward motion but we get to keep polaroid cameras and vinyl records?
James and Hannah admit, within the show, that it’s unfinished, that it’ll change, that anything based on people’s imaginations is bound to change, but that its mutability is part of the show’s identity. As something that asks for collaborative imagination, it needs that kind of space built into it.
Unlike the previous two shows, EPCOT does not encourage audience participation, per se. But it gives us the tools and the provocations through which to meaningfully think about a different future. To think about a future we might actually want.
Maybe change shouldn’t happen in the theatre space, maybe that’s asking too much. Maybe it should happen, as James and Hannah suggest, in the hours after, in the days and weeks after.
How do we remember these participatory experiences? Do we smile smugly and remember when we had some headphones on and giggled into a microphone, when we sang Mr Brightside or danced on the stage at CPT? Or do we remember a time when we were invited to take a risk? To talk to a stranger? To be part of something bigger than just us, and the confines of our egos and private worlds?
At the end of EPCOT, we are left with the image of all of our futures, living in the same room together, just for a bit. And I think that’s an invaluable image that we should all take forward. In the theatre we are asked to map meaning onto meaningless objects; we are asked to believe things that we can see are untrue, asked to loan our imaginations to the strangers in front of us, and be guided by them to a world we don’t recognise. But it is fundamental to the theatre we’re going to return to that there is room in every building for all of our imaginations, together. That we curate rooms where many futures can co-exist. Where we all experience something personally, individually, then go outside and raise it together, define it as groups, in the days, weeks, years afterwards. We figure out how to make many futures into The Future.
And look, this article’s already twice as long as it was meant to be. And maybe it looks like I’m taking three fringe shows, made by people I vaguely and not-so-vaguely am friends with, too seriously. Like I’m granting a small group of artists of my age and with similar interests to me a grandeur they don’t necessarily have or need.
But actually they do need it. Fringe theatre is important. Fringe theatre is serious. These artists called us together and asked something of us; to be a community and to participate in change. Not massive change, I grant you, not a protest or a demonstration or a direct action, but a change nonetheless. They asked us to make something together. A thing that could only be made by a group of people, willingly participating, together.
We have been granted, for better or worse (and I’m afraid it probably is worse), a period of reflection now. Reflection on what we make, what we consume, and how we make and consume it. But we are a community. And the theatrical world we return to must be a collaborative one.
We must be able to have fun, to sing and dance and throw things. We must be able to make active change. And we must be allowed to imagine the world we could live in.
And then we go out and make that world.