Theatre Critic and Journalist

Let heaven see the pranks…

Let heaven see the pranks…

With the nation moving from barracking to Baracking and the uproar of the Ross/Brand Sachs scandal seemingly forgotten, it seems time to scrutinize the ethics and aesthetics of the prank call in performance. (Actually, it seems rather late but I’ve been putting this off for a while.)

To summarize, Ross and Brand left a series of slightly obscene, largely unamusing and hugely puerile messages on actor Andrew Sachs’ answering machine. The British public, stirred up by the media, sharpened their pitchforks and fired up their torches, complaining in their thousands. Two resignations and one suspension later, everyone’s happy. (Presumably, none more so than Andrew Sachs’ agent.)

Where Brand and Ross strayed into abusiveness, a good prank call will play on the disruption of reality and fiction. The call always has some degree of reality; it exists in the world as a social interaction between two people. In a prank call, there is an obvious imbalance: the caller and the ‘victim’ have different beliefs about the nature and content of that interaction. When an audience is involved, they are privy to both sides. They understand the true nature of the call, but also see the mistaken belief of the ‘victim’. They can enjoy the confusion, but also empathize with the response.

Without some fiction or false intentions, there is no imbalance of belief. Brand and Ross left messages as themselves – albeit excited playground versions of themselves – and Andrew Sachs heard those messages as truthful. There was nothing for Sachs to fall for, no illusion or deceit to be taken in by. Equally, there was no risk that Brand and Ross would be caught out, partly because, in leaving messages, they did not have to deal with immediate consequences and partly because there was no play on reality. Compare Marc-Antoinne Audette’s recent call to Sarah Palin, in which he posed as President Sarkozy, sang her a song (‘Du Rouges á Levres Sur Une Cochonne’ or ‘Lipstick on a Pig’) and praised political-porno Nailin’ Palin. She fell for it. We laughed and, more importantly, we learnt something about Palin.

More than the simple fact of deception, it is the reality of the response that gives the prank its aesthetic interest. The deceived ‘victim’ does not act as though, they act because or seemingly because.

The recorded media are full of such pranks: Phonejacker, Beadles’ About, Noel Edmonds’ Gotchas. In the nineties, radio shows relied on prank calls for comedy purposes. Such media can, of course, seek permission before broadcast. The ‘victim’ can be informed and their beliefs reconciled with reality, and then allow themselves to become the butt of the joke in public. In live performance, the same is not true. In order for a real response to occur, they must be unknowingly undermined in public.

During the devising process for Life at the Molecular Level, Present Attempt played with telephone calls. We liked the interplay of truth and fiction, the disparity of intention and belief, the intermingling of presence and absence and, most of all, the reality of the response at the other end of the line. We wanted to make friends with call-centre workers, over time. We wanted to play the single, lonely man struggling with ready meal instructions. We wanted more than customer care, we wanted a relationship.

However, we felt uncomfortable putting people onstage without permission. I can only assume The Special Guests had a similar reaction when making The Telephone Game, a durational performance around telephone conversations and behaviour that expanded from a section in This Much I Know (Part One). Though I didn’t see the piece, from what I can gather The Special Guests called each other, family members, friends, but stopped short of calling people unknown to them.

Is it ever ethical to put someone onstage without their knowledge, to enforce a revelation of themselves in public? Perhaps not, but I want to see it nonetheless.

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