Wednesday, 18 June 2008

There the men are as mad as he

Today I got to play Hamlet, although only for a selection of scenes (Ghost Scene, Play-Within-a-Play, and Death-Scene, to be precise). I couldn't help but feel pretentious, as we hadn't had much time for rehearsal, and here I was, holding my moleskine notebook ("my tables"), in my black jeans, my inside-out black shirt and reddish leather shoes, trying to do it justice. I ended up looking at it a bit like Luke trying to get his X-Wing out in the swamps of Degobah (you know you're a nerd when...).

And now that it's done, I wonder what criteria I was assessed on, as this is Exeter Uni and they lean more towards theatre than drama. And as I've voiced far too many times before on this blog, that's not what I expected "British Acting" to be.

Apparently, though, I was wrong.

I met with a working dramaturg recently - he's 28 and about to have his first book published on Contemporary British Drama - and he said that a lot of theatre in England is strictly devised. In the South West most of the theatre takes place outside of theatres, either as site-specific or found-space pieces, or street theatre, etc., while in London there's been a big push towards "Event" theatre. He mentioned that dramaturgs in England are having a hard time, because a large demographic of English directors - the middle aged ones from the 70's - are extremely distrustful of someone else coming in to fiddle with their work, and it's only now that a new generation of directors is coming along that dramaturgs are beginning to get some leeway. These stubborn middle-aged directors follow a trend in the English theatre though, which I found completely baffling:

English dramatists are opposed to theory.

Oddly enough, drama theory is viewed as "Continental." (The American-British spectrum doesn't even enter into it.) And so dramaturgs have a hard time getting jobs. And that did a few things for me.

First, it put Exeter Drama in perspective (if that's the culture they're playing towards, then it's not the University's fault that I get weird looks when I mention structure).

Second, it aligned a number of pieces of information that I'd heard from some post-grad students, like the fact that since Universities are publically funded, their curriculums (insofar as they are limited by their funding) are determined by the English Government. One of the post-grads chalked this up to the more leftist groups in power, who he said "found text-based theatre to be too high-brow," insisting on more of a people's theatre of clowns and street performers. So of course a publically funded University would be heavy on devising - it requires minimal sets, costumes and space, with no books outside of some about the process of devising, and no royalties. Which is less out of the Government's pocket.

Third, it made me happy to live in a country where there were privately funded Universities, and that was a first.

Fourth, it made me question British theatre, if that's truly the state of it. If it's truly more theatre than drama not just in Exeter but all of England, how are you supposed to handle things like Hamlet, which are symphonies of Action and conflict, and, even more so, are your native masterpieces? I'm sure if I looked further into the state of the British Theatre, outside of a coffee with a dramaturg (informative though it was), I'd be able to answer these questions.

But fifth and finally, it made me try to take the long view. Everyone's always saying that they're worried about the state of the theatre, just as an institution. This dramaturg's concerns were that virtually all the other art forms had been blown into the stratosphere - if you look at sculpture, painting, or music, for example, there's plenty more advancement on the avante-garde levels than in theatre, if only because realistic drama is still one of the more common things seen in theatres. And he was calling for a kind of blasting-off of theatre, of learning when you've created a strong enough story to stop and have some clowns come in and play.

And yet you get a writer like Martin McDonough, who built his career on the sheer strength of his stories (and punching Sean Connery in the face, of course), who left writing for theatre so that he could write and direct movies, because he claimed that in movies they've retained a knowledge of storytelling, and the theatre has lost that.

That would be scann'd. It seems like the problem in the theatre can't be cause-and-effect narratives constricting artists' creativity as a whole if the theatre has lost its inherent ability to tell stories.

But now, actually, I need to stop this, because it's getting late. Needless to say I'm a little perplexed by theatre, at the moment.

1 comment:

RM said...

hey griffin,

don't know how closely you read my/anton's stuff (you man about town you), but we've got this project going ( And we'd love to have you collaborate on some of it. Just take a look and let us know what you think. Also, if you're ever even thinking about being in the Boston area, call us.