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What is theatre?

What is theatre?
14 October 2010 posted by John Wyver

Let's get back to basics today. On the occasion of the NT Live transmission to cinemas tonight from the Theatre Royal Plymouth of Complicite's A Disappearing Number, let's ask ourselves, what is theatre? (I'm not able to attend one of the screenings, which frustrates me -- but it doesn't change the basis of my ideas.) And let's ask that question in relation to Chris Goode's striking attack on the NT Live/Complicite event -- or rather on the idea of the event since it's not taken place yet. Writing at some length on his blog Thompson's Bank of Communicable Desire, he follow up a tweet in which he dismisses Complicite's decision to allow A Disappearing Number to be shown like this as 'greedy, wrongheaded and treacherous'. He also acknowledges that he feels 'angry and nauseated'. Let's try to understand quite why.

Here are some extracts from Chris Goode's post which I hope encapsulate his argument. (There are other concerns about why the NT Live and similar projects are significant, including the far from trivial questions associated with access, but those are not quite at the heart of this.)

My contention is that the cultural meaning of theatre is in its form, much more than in individual instances of its content...

The fundamentals of this form are as follows:

We gather together in one place, the audience and the performers and other makers; we experience something together that is happening live and is vulnerable to all the unpredictable contingencies of live performance; and when the constructed encounter has been played out, it is gone. Those are the three basic tenets of theatre as presently distinct from other forms. 

Of course there is a fourth. These things matter. They are consequential in our lived experience. That is: they matter during the show, but they also matter before and after the show. They matter in the particular encounter that we have, in the course if the performance that we have gathered to see and make together; bu they matter also more widely, more constantly, in that we use them generally as ways of describing what theatre is and is not, and what therefore it might be in our lives, in the cultural and social situations in which we live. 

I agree with all of these fundamentals -- and I believe that all of them are present when one is watching a live event with other people gathered together in a space, irrespective of whether the event is embodied in front of you or shown on a screen and irrespective of whether that space is a theatre or a cinema. To believe anything else is mis-placed essentialism.

Both the live-ness and the social aspects of this are crucial. You can't experience these fundamentals on your own at home (or at least you achieve only a thin version of them). Nor can they be realised by the presentation of a pre-recorded video or film version of a performance. But a mediated version of a live event is unquestionably 'vulnerable to all the unpredictable contingencies of live performance'. 

Also, when that event is played out, even though there may be a recording of the screen images on a digital disc somewhere, the experience of me and those other people in that cinema sharing something together -- and sharing it too with thousands of others around the world, that's gone too. This is immediate albeit mediated, and it's just as fragile and evanescent as any conventional theatre.

And of course these involvements with the actors and the others around me matter, just as much as if I were in the theatre seated twenty or two hundred feet from the cast. In fact, they might even matter more, because I can concentrate in a more focussed way, I can feel closer and be more involved and where appropriate get more enveloped, even while I can also retain my distance. 

In the narrowest and least interesting sense (simple physical proximity to the stage), NT Live and its like isn't theatre, but in relation to the other concerns outlined by Chris Goode, it is. (Not to mention -- which we weren't going to -- that it's cheaper than many theatre shows, less intimidating for many, more comfortable -- and simply and straightforwardly achievable, whether for geographical or other reasons.)

There is, however, a fifth fundamental that needs attention also.

And there is, also of course, a fifth. It matters that these things matter. It matters to us, it's important. We want to know, we need to know, when we go to the theatre, that our presence in that space at that time matters, is of consequence. We want to know that if a cat wanders onto the stage, it will be acknowledged, just as if furious pelicans invaded the auditorium, it would have repercussions for the continuance of the performance. If we shout obscenities they will be heard by the actors. If our phone goes off it will be heard, and Richard Griffiths will remonstrate with us picturesquely. It matters to our reading of the performance, and of the situation in which it unfolds, that the encounter in which we're participating is ephemeral and not precisely repeatable -- is not, in other words, an object.

Above all, it matters that theatre can have a strong claim to an ethical basis for its activity, simply by dint of its representing a social space that has no fundamental obligation to replicating the power relations that exist outside that space. Those basic elements come together to create a space where we can really see and hear each other, and where that process of seeing and hearing is shaped not only by the content of the work we came to pay attention to, but also by the form that holds us together in its image.

I've inserted a para break here which isn't in the original because it seems to me that the observation in the first part of this is correct, although relatively unremarkable. 'If our phone goes off it will be heard...' Yes, but is that part of the fundamental of theatre -- and in particular is the reason it is such because the space we are in 'represent[s] a social space that has no fundamental obligation to replicating the power functions that exist outside that space'?

Yes and no, surely. Much theatre of course does replicate the external power functions, and works hard to keep those in place. But much can break through and away from those constraints, in thrilling and challenging ways. Certainly the carnivalesque quality of the best theatre can achieve this very effectively, but so too can involvement with others in screen-mediated culture -- in online games, for example, or in watching sport in a collective context. We don't chose to call those activities, or at least not very often, theatre, but they offer this sense of a fundamental alternative -- and they do so not because one of the participants could hear the phone I'd forgotten to switch off.

Just as Chris Goode has 'a modicum of sympathy' for the idea that what's happening with such transmissions 'is a blurring of formal distinctions, and that blurring is exciting and productive and not to be feared', so I recognise that there's an absolute importance in holding on to being in the same space with actors. That's a vital, irreducible part of cultural experience for me and for many millions of others. Lest I should have given the opposite impression, I have no wish to see this done away with.

What I do resist, however, are what seem to me mis-judged essentialist defences of a form -- theatre -- that is changing and developing and mutating in a thousand wonderful and remarkable ways. NT Live and its like are one part of that, one strand of a glorious carpet of many colours. Collectively experience live transmissions are not second-best imitations of 'real' theatre happening elsewhere. They are not 'greedy, wrongheaded and treacherous'. And they are -- and should be celebrated as such -- theatre.


Chris Goode

14 October 2010 16:14

Thanks for this interesting response, John. I'm not convinced, rabid essentialist that I am, but I'm glad of the discussion. I'll add a little footnote to my post and send folks over here for a useful and possibly corrective dispatch from the other side! best, Chris

Jonny Liron

15 October 2010 02:50

Yeah, I'm afraid a lot of the stuff in here feels pretty odious to my ears. 'I believe that all of them are present when one is watching a live event with other people gathered together in a space, irrespective of whether the event is embodied in front of you or shown on a screen and irrespective of whether that space is a theatre or a cinema.' No, the fundamental tenets for something being theatre, that is, live, and most importantly, responsive, are not irrespective of whether the event is happening in the room with me or whether it's happening somewhere else and being edited and manipulated in it's presentation to me. Sure, at a cinema, I'm with people and we watch together, but the film can't respond, it is an object. People, actors and performers, can respond to how I am watching, they are not objects. So sitting and watching a film together can be social and often is, but the artwork being presented to us does not care whether we are there or not, the makers may care about our watching, but they aren't there. So it is not only not irrespective but actually formative as to whether the event is played from a dvd player or sent through the internet, or made by living breathing actual people who are looking me in the eye and know that I can see them seeing me. Chris's argument, if you read his blog post, was exactly critiquing that particular unimaginative and pervasive sentiment, that the form of the event, the materials it is made out of and the labour that goes into those materials, is irrespective, no, the materials something is made out of determines its meaning and has very real ethics, histories and consequences. I am baffled by your definition of theatre and what you think it is if you think I can have a theatrical experience from playing online backgammon. Live broadcast may be, as it says on the tin, live, like football is live, like live tv is live, but it is not theatre. A live broadcast is on a screen, and is still being edited live, it is being manipulated, and is manipulating how I watch, it is therefore, in effect, more stupid and patronising than theatre, because for theatre I have to be present because I have to have agency, the whole thing is to do with how I am watching, and if I am watching, as in, if the way I am watching, is being dictated by the camera men and the mixer and what kind of camera it is, then I have no agency in how I watch, so it's much less democratic as a form, it's more fascist. And what else would you include in your glorious carpet of many colours? Theatre is not a big old church, it's not an umbrella, it's not one carpet which we are all a happy part of because some work, a lot of work, is violent and harmful and makes us more stupid and less attentive, a lot of work, a lot of the time without meaning to, alienates us. 'The smallest lapse of attention is death.' - Geoff Ward With love Jonny

Gary Thomas

15 October 2010 15:11

Rik Mayall, maybe as one of the Dangerous Brothers, at The Latchmere in 1982: "What is theatre? I don't know. I'd ask Vanessa Redgrave. But I don't know Vanessa Redgrave." Also at The Latchmere in 1982, John Sessions being Meryl Streep, in her garden, watering her accents.

John Wyver

15 October 2010 16:15

I'm immensely grateful for Chris Goode's original post, and also for Jonny Liron's comment above - both have made me think more carefully than before about what I believe to be the essence of theatre. 'Odious' is not a word I recognise as applicable to my post, but I'd accept provocative or maybe even tendentious. Re Jonny's points, a live transmission in a cinema is precisely not a *film*, and to characterise it as such mistakes why such transmissions are so particular and so exciting -- and, in a real sense, theatrical. Equally, could I apply the word theatre to online gaming - not, perhaps of backgammon, but of, say, Halo? Yes, I think I could. But ultimately it's not definitions as such that matter here, but rather what is at stake in the application of those definitions. What I resist is the idea that screen-based media, in contrast to what we are regarding as traditional theatre, is 'manipulated' and 'edited', and that *as a consequence* it is 'less democratic', even (a particularly tricky word pairing, this) 'more fascist'. Just as important, I resist the idea that because of this supposed distinction, live screen-based activity is somehow secondary, impoverished, inferior. Skilled theatre professionals manipulate my attention all the time, and I have immense freedom to direct my attention, and my thinking and responses, in different ways when faced with a large, high-definition image and exceptional sound. To think otherwise is to fall back on simplistic ideas of media transmission and audience reception. It is also, perhaps unthinkingly, to fall into lazy assumptions about the culture value of different media. Watching Das Rheingold live in the Clapham Picturehouse is different from watching it at the Met, granted. Just as it would be different watching a comparable production seated, say, at the Traverse. But it need not be a less enriching or less challenging or less democratic or less aesthetic or less moving or indeed less theatrical experience.


15 October 2010 17:52

Hi John, last night I saw the NTLive production at a multiplex, which must be the first time in at least 20 years that I've been to a mainstream cinema. By comparison, I'm seeing 5 plays this week, 3 last week, 5 next. It got off to a shambolic start. I arrived at 6:20 (for a 7pm start), was told that the doors would open at 6:30, so made my way up the escalators (!!!) to sit in the bar with my book. No programmes, of course. Then someone came round asking who was seeing "the play" and telling us to rush in quickly because they'd just discovered it was starting at 6:30. There was me, a guy already in there unsure if it was the right screen because no one was at the door, and then a group of women came in. I wondered how disruptive it was going to be with people wandering in for the next 30 minutes, and how annoyed I would have been had I been late. After 5 minutes, another employee came in and said that it would start at 7pm after all. The women were complaining that they'd just had to finish their drinks quickly because alcohol wasn't allowed in ("they let you take drinks in at Stratford", said one) and now they had to wait again. None of that would have happened in a theatre. FOH always know what's going on, and on at least 2 occasions that I can remember the start of a play has been delayed because of very severe traffic incidents resulting in many of the audience being late. After that false start, the feed came through and we were shown the live auditorium. Joe Public in massive, intrusive close-up. But at least it felt familiar. Could I almost have been there? I wish. I felt like I was out in the cold with my nose pressed against the window. But, just as I was getting in the mood, there was an advert for Aviva, the sponsors. Selling us their charity work rather than their products, but even so, guaranteed to whip me out of any illusion that I was anywhere other than in a cinema. Last weekend I was sitting in a Travelex sponsored seat, but their deal with the National doesn't include an actor coming to the front of the stage to tell me how wonderful Travelex are! We were then treated to a short interview by Emma Freud with a very uncomfortable looking Simon McBurney. Part of the stage was visible in the background, and after a couple of minutes an upstage door opened and someone walked on and crossed the stage so that they were out of shot. The live audience went quiet, but the interview continued as though nothing had happened. I wanted to see that stage! The burble of audience conversation started up in the background again, but who had come on? What was he doing? What was I missing? Freud wrapped up the interview saying that there would be another brief talk after the show, and the play proper started, with the mystery man standing still on stage. Nothing so far had engaged me in the way that being in a live theatre does. The play itself makes great use of video and projection (from an OHP - a stage prop), a huge white board doubling as a screen that rotates on its horizontal axis enabling actors to duck beneath it, as well as the usual theatrical conventions such as plastic seats becoming the interior of cars or train carriages. At various points chalk dust poured out of a portable blackboard, sand from a handbag, and loose papers were spread across the stage forming a circle. Were the play to be made into a film, much of the shorthand that theatre-goers don't even think about would have to be made more realistic, and the sense of fun and playfulness would be lost. In this hybrid format, though, this theatrical language didn't seem strange. What was strange, was having my gaze directed. There were times when I wanted to see what was happening on another part of the stage. Pools of light were used to define areas for short scenes, but sometimes I wanted to watch an actor leave or become neutral in a cross fade, my thoughts lingering in the fading light for a moment, before catching up with the new scene elsewhere. Or I wanted a wider view, or to watch a particular piece of business being carried out. I think in a theatre our mind focuses in and out a bit like a zoom on a camera, but obviously at our will. At the end, as the actors took their bow, the visual feed was lost, and half way through what sounded like an encore the sound was cut and an image of forthcoming films was displayed. I don't know if there was a technical problem or whether this was because the next film was scheduled to start there and then. No chance of sitting staring at an empty stage for a few moments of quiet contemplation, though. As we left, a small team with dustpans and bin liners were already moving in. So, was it theatre? The wrap around certainly wasn't! I would say that the production wasn't either. Yes, I was always aware that I was watching something recorded live. Anything could have happened. I would have heard that mobile phone or seen that cat wander onto the stage. But it didn't have that heightened sense of "live-ness" that I get in a theatre. Despite the confusion of when it was actually going to start, it felt as though it could have been recorded last week. I didn't get that vicarious adrenalin rush at the beginning that I do when it's happening yards in front of my face. A story was about to be told, but I was watching it, I wasn't a part of it. And that's the crucial difference. Therefore, I don't think being in a space (cinema) with other people rather than hypothetically on my own sitting on the sofa watching it on DVD made any difference. You may accuse me of misplaced essentialism, but the rush I get at the start of a live performance when I'm in the theatre is physical, not intellectual. You talk about having an involvement with the actors, presumably because you can see in huge close-up what you couldn't see from the back of the stalls. That may enhance your appreciation of their acting skills, or of the story, but it's not involvement in a theatrical sense. To be part of a theatre audience, is to be aware that everything you do or don't do becomes part of that one unique performance. Your laughter, your coughing, your breathing, your moving, your pin-drop silence is part of the whole performance. Whatever a remote audience sitting in a cinema may think they're part of, they're not part of that. So, was what I saw last night theatre? No. For several hundred people in Plymouth it was, though I'd be interested to know how intrusive the cameras were for both actors and audience. For the thousands who saw it on screen, of course it wasn't theatre. They weren't there. For various logistical reasons I've never seen A Disappearing Number. It was a radio play on Radio 4 some time back, I suspect with some re-writes to make it a little more linear though I could be wrong. I therefore had a notion of it in my mind's eye, which was nothing like Complicite's stage production. I could have gone on-line and read all the reviews which would have given me a better impression of how it was staged. Seeing it last night was the next step up from reading lots of indepth reviews. I can now imagine what it's like to sit in a theatre and watch it, and because I see a lot of theatre, my imagination might get me somewhere close to the reality. NTLive broadcasts (and what about their encore broadcasts?), however useful a tool when you want to know about a production but can't get there, are definitely not theatre in my opinion.

Glen Neath

18 October 2010 15:10

Just a few thoughts about the comparisons with watching football on the tv. I am a regular theatre go-er but haven't attended a football match for a long time and so I have become accustomed to watching it live on tv or highlighted on Match of the Day. I was in Germany throughout the World Cup and had to watch the whole thing without commentary... and strangely it was like I wasn't privy to everything that was going on, often I had no idea who had the ball for example or of how many caps he had won for his country, or which team he played for in the Bundesliga. Then of course there are the slow motion replays. I think I would be infinitely more interested in watching live theatre in the cinema if there were replays of particularly good bits of acting and a running commentary letting me know which actor playing which character had just entered the action, but of course this would necessitate the introduction of throw-ins into theatrical productions. But in the context of broadcasting theatre in cinemas there is something to say for employing a commentator who could act as a bridge between the audience and the remote auditorium - when watching a football match live on the television bizarrely it's often the voice of the commentator you most identify with in the present moment, I suspect because it?s difficult to identify in any kind of truly ?live? way with 22 men running around on a rectangle of luscious green grass unless you?re actually there with them.

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