Theatre Critic and Journalist

An Idea Alone Doesn’t Make Theatre

An Idea Alone Doesn’t Make Theatre

Published in the Guardian Theatre Blog, 28.01.2009

Despite conventional wisdom, theatre can exist without much of what we take for granted; it can survive without text or fiction, without stage or performers and perhaps even without a distinct audience. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the stripping away of theatre’s individual elements is crucial to the experimentation and evolution of the medium. However, while I admire his poetic idealism, I draw the line at Andy Field’s recent suggestion that theatre can exist in the imagination alone.

For me, theatre that does not actually take place in some way or other is simply no theatre at all. The imaginary performances to which Andy refers seem to me a theatre so concerned with peeling away its inessential excesses that nothing remains. When he writes about the inspiration gained from Forced Entertainment’s Nights In This City, despite his not having experienced the performance, Andy mistakes theatre for an idea of it. Of course, both can massively affect one’s experiences of life and the world, but they do so in very different ways.

That Forced Entertainment’s latest production Spectacular should come up in the ensuing discussion is entirely apt. It is a performance that conjures up a thousand absent performances in the individual minds of its audience members. Yet those imagined shows are not themselves theatre, but the products of it. Spectacular is theatre by virtue of its existent elements – its text, its spoken words, its movements – elements which themselves invite us to think of what else is and isn’t there. For theatre, reality is essential.

One of my own greatest pleasures is spotting the “theatre” strolling unawares in the real world – in arguments between lovers, in solitary coffee-drinkers lost in thought, in business-like men suited up on tube platforms. Here, where something seems to have stepped off the stage and into reality, parallel possibilities exist: the real and the fictitious. The theatre is entirely imagined, but as occurrences, such events must surely qualify as theatrical rather than theatre. They share certain qualities of theatre without belonging to the medium.

Yet there is a growing trend for non-existent performance. Ant Hampton’s recent collaboration with Britt Hatzius, This Site Could Be Yours, is a series of writings about imagined performances in response to photographs. As intriguing as some of these new texts are, their theatre belongs to the realm of ideas. Just as an imaginary bullet can do no harm, an imaginary performance cannot move its audience in the same way as one that actually exists.

For me, theatre exists not in the mind, but between audience and performance. Theatrical thought-experiments may have their value, but a thousand plays in the mind can only ever be worth two in the Bush.

Photograph: Britt Hatzius

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