Presumptions: Can Theatre Be Too Clever For Its Own Good?
An edited version of this blog was published on the Guardian Theatre Blog, 11.11.2009
Right: embarrassing confession time. To my shame, before Friday night I hadn’t realised that Gone With The Wind was a novel. In fact, having not seen the film, the sum total of my knowledge consisted of Vivien Leigh and “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Beyond that, I could recognise the poster at a hundred paces, given that it hung pretentiously on the wall of my student bedsit for three years in a desperate bid to project a sense of artsy, retro cool. Hardly the stuff of a Mastermind champion, I think you’ll agree.
But, until Friday night, I’ve never felt guilty about it. After all, I’m only twenty-four and there are an awful lot of books I’m yet to read and films to see. In fact, I strongly suspect this will be the case for the rest of my life. However, watching Architecting at the Barbican last Friday, my lack of knowledge felt like a deficiency.
No matter how much foreknowledge one brings to Architecting, it remains a tricky piece of high intellect. The company behind Architecting, The TEAM or Theatre of the Emerging American Moment, do to the American national psyche what medical students do to cadavers. Architecting weaves around post-Katrina New Orleans and Margaret Mitchell’s novel, which it examines from a number of perspectives: the author’s own voice, a racially-revised remake of the film, several Scarlett O’Hara obsessives and the recreation of scenes from the novel itself.
Watching it, I felt its intelligence. I could sense the scalpel’s presence, ripping into American culture and holding up the innards for scrutiny, but I couldn’t identify anything. Being totally unversed in the iconography used and its connotations, I couldn’t find an entry point for understanding. The experience was like reading a doctoral thesis in a subject that I stopped studying at thirteen: frustrating, baffling and, eventually, isolating.
Behind all this lies the question of how much knowledge theatremakers can expect us to arrive with. Ought their work to presume nothing and explain everything? Ought it to treat us like idiots or infants by catering for the lowest common denominator, spoon-feeding and spelling out as it goes? Of course not. To insist on such mollycoddling would be to outlaw anything that seeks to do more than scratch surfaces or explain the basics. This, in turn, patronizes and excludes those audience members that come with a degree of specialist knowledge. I know several people who left Enron at the interval for exactly that reason.
However, this does not absolve theatre of a responsibility to be accessible. But where does that responsibility lie if not with the work itself? Do theatres have a duty to prep their audiences in advance, providing glossaries and bibliographies in a colourful education pack? Or, perhaps, we should be conscientiously devouring the programme notes beforehand and whipping out our i-phones in the interval to google key terms?
In truth, we’re caught between a rock and a hard place. We want an intelligent, investigative theatre, but one in which no one gets left behind.
What’s needed is a different approach: a permissive theatre. Rather than making singular assertions, which require a minimum level of foreknowledge, the permissive theatre embraces the multiplicity of its audience and allows itself to be read in different ways and at different levels. It allows us to make our own connections and find our own course through by becoming a proposition, permitting and provoking many possible responses. That’s not to suggest that it means whatever you want it to mean, but rather that we get from it whatever we get from it. The permissive theatre can, indeed must, still have something to say, but it must also recognise its own failure to do so absolutely.
Image: The TEAM