A performer walks into a theatre, sits down on a chair on an otherwise empty stage, and after a moments silence reveals to the gathered audience that their intention is to present a work about how they can change the world. After relaying thoughts about all of the methods they considered using in order to achieve this – the lights and technology they might have employed, the many scenes they could have written, the different characters that could have appeared, the other titles that they have considered – the performer discloses that perhaps one of the best things the assembled might do in the present circumstances is actually just sit together quietly for a bit, maybe listen to the sound of their breathing.
Let’s say that in another work, the same performer steps out of the audience and walks onto the stage. They take a position in front of a music stand that holds a scrapbook, open it, and proceed to read the text it contains. For the next forty-five minutes or so they read a simple story about a group of people who have gathered together in a room somewhere – a room that looks a bit like the one the performer and audience are in – to listen to a story. The story tells stories about what it might be that has brought these people there, about what the potential of the situation is, about what they might all do when the story ends.
These short synopses describe all that is solid melts into air and commonwealth, two works for theatre spaces that form the practical component of a research project that I have been undertaking for the last three years. They represent the ongoing development of a practice that I have been involved in making since 2003 and that I call a dematerialised theatre. This is a theatre that – inspired by the conceptual art practices of the late sixties and early seventies from which it takes its name – looks to try and do more with less. It’s a theatre resistant to the construction of places and things. I’m not interested in making a spectacle, rather in building something simple and everyday with modest means. This is a theatre that may appear small, but it wants to think big.
A dematerialised theatre takes ideas from examples like Michael Craig Martin’s seminal artwork An Oak Tree, 1973. You may know this work. It consists of a glass of water on a shelf, underneath which a text is installed on the wall that contains a dialogue between the artist and an imaginary viewer. The text explores the processes that allowed the artist to do what he claims to have done, which is alter the accidents of the glass of water so that it is no longer a glass of water, but an oak tree.
In 2005 this work inspired and lent its name to a play I co-directed by my friend, the writer and actor Tim Crouch. This play tells a story of two characters, but one of the actors playing one of those characters is new every night. They step out from the audience at the start having never seen or read the work, and having been encouraged by us to find out as little as possible about it as they can. At the beginning, without costume or accent or any of the rehearsal or preparation that we might have expected a performer to have undertaken, through a series of simple suggestions not unlike those that Craig-Martin uses to alter the accidents of the glass of water in his artwork, this actor is transformed into the character that they play, an act of transformation that, simply through the application of some chosen words, takes place in the audience as much as in the actor. It’s an act made possible in the context and conditions created by us and the black box theatre in the same way I understand the white walls of the gallery allow Craig-Martin and his viewer to change a glass of water into an oak tree.
In my later practice and research, I have in part been trying to see if I can reduce an act of theatre even further. Remove all excess until I am left with something very basic, and in many ways very traditional, but something that I still hope holds the potential to be essential. Here I am sitting and talking to an audience. Here I am standing and talking to an audience. Here we are. Still undertaking something like – as Craig-Martin has reflected in relation to the glass of water on the shelf – an act of faith: the faith of an artist in their capacity to speak, and the belief of an audience in accepting what they have to say.
But here’s the thing. I think that by being in the room with an audience, by being together with some other people in the social environment of the theatre, I am not alone in this capacity. By undertaking these particular acts, and using what we have got, I want to try and create opportunities for us all to think about what any of us might have to say. I want to do this so that we might all ask what we do, and can do in relation to making the theatre that we are all involved in making. We are all involved. I want to ask if we might still think and see theatre spaces as spaces of capacity, spaces where it doesn’t take us much to think about how we are acting and how we might act. How we are able to regard and in some way alter the accidents of things. How we might take inspiration and courage from the acts of transformation that I think the theatre can offer us and that we participate in, and make the space to consider how we can apply some of its ideas to the worlds beyond its doors.
Key to both my approach and the appearance of this theatre is a quality that Italo Calvino defines as a thoughtful lightness, a notion that suggests to me both a gravity and a buoyancy: a capacity to take things seriously without losing a sense of being playful. I want to thoughtfully – lightly – interrogate, search and re-search the theatre. I want to ask some simple questions: ask what it takes to make it, ask why we might make it, ask how we might make it, ask why and where the work happens and ask what can happen from it.
Jill Dolan has written that the theatre is capable of; “[...] small but profound moments in which performance calls the attention of the audience in a way that lifts everyone slightly above the present”. Like her, I also want the theatre to be a vessel for some radical ideas, but I want to take a different, perhaps more pragmatic approach. I think I’m looking to find and create some methods for a theatre to lift us not above but into the present. Both all that is solid melts into air and commonwealth are attempts to examine ideas of both the theatre – and our – capacity and potential within – and after – its fact. They appear in social contexts where concepts of collective action can sometimes be difficult to imagine. In a place where we know there are things to be done, but we don’t always know just what we can do.
The landscape of theatre in which they appear is also one filled with ideas and discussions around participation and interaction, a landscape where practices are often exploring new and exciting methods and where boundaries are often challenged. These activities illuminate an important aspect of dematerialised theatre, which chooses to see the act of sitting and listening in a room not as one of passive consumption, but also a form of participation.
I don’t think of these pieces of work as solo performances, but instead as collaborations with an audience. I hope the words that I choose to use and the conditions they can help me to create can somehow allow an act of dialogue or thinking together. Though it may be me that’s talking and the audience that is sitting and listening, I hope that they will recognise the importance of their role, as I hope you might as you read this now. I hope that whatever they (and you) are doing, we might think of everyone as actors all of the time. We all turn up to the theatre. We are all in the same room. We arrive at a place that I think and hope still has the potential to be a social environment, a place where we can describe who we are to each other, and where we can take some time to think about what we have got.
I want to use the theatre to open space and hold it open. Create opportunities that I think the rooms we call theatres can afford us. To take a chance to just apply the brakes a little and see where we are, to think about matters and think about what matters. And to ask the question: what can we do?
Andy Smith has been making theatre under the name a smith since 2003. His most recent solo works are all that is solid melts into air and commonwealth. Along with Karl James he is the co-director of An Oak Tree, ENGLAND, and The Author by Tim Crouch. Together, they have recently been commissioned to write and perform a new work for The Almeida Theatre with the title what happens to the hope at the end of the evening. He is currently undertaking an AHRC funded practice-as-research PhD at Lancaster University.