Writing for Ranters – A Theatre of the Everyday.

by Raimondo Cortese

in National Conference

Post image for Writing for Ranters – A Theatre of the Everyday.

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich.) 

Everyday theatre provides the nexus for the actor/performer to reveal their true faces. The audience is potentially given free rein to experience human interaction without the distorting constraints of social conformity. This occurs when the performer exercises their free will. Through free-floating acts of desire, super-awareness energizes the performer’s involvement and informs what they do; it reframes how performers and audience engage each other. Theatre becomes banal when it is turned into a narrative focused on stating the surface content of the text or the body.

Within the everyday, performance arises as a constant struggle of asserting the self within the social domain that places constraints on individual expression. Every person and environment imposes a particular brand of civilizing influence, requires specific performative protocols/conventions that are measured during everyday interaction. As with an actor on stage, the performer within the everyday endures the fear of being unmasked, of hidden agendas and desires being revealed. Everyday interactions must appear natural and unrehearsed. An individual in the everyday is usually expected to keep their thoughts private; signs of vulnerability should be kept at bay. The individual is required to take responsibility for their impulses. The everyday environment, as with conventional theatre, is governed by learned rules and protocols that ensure anarchic impulses are contained within clear parameters (Certeau 1988, 110).

Yet the field of the everyday is filled with exceptions. On continuous display is the over-riding desire of people to connect with each other in profound ways, an instinctive and all pervading spirit that ‘jolts the audience’ and nullifies social restrictions that stymie genuine contact (Read 1993, 61-2). I have witnessed numerous occasions where performative expectations dissolved, where behavioural patterns brake down to reveal situations and qualities of being that were hitherto invisible (Read 1993, 63). The variability in notions of ‘character’ is far more extreme in the everyday, than what is typically presented within theatres. Everyday interactions provided me with a constant provocation: How can my observations of the everyday inform my own practice and methodology for text and performance creation?

The complex, meticulous manifestations of human ‘action’ and language that I observed in the everyday environment have consistently shifted and affected my practice and methodology over a twenty-two-year period working with Ranters Theatre[1]. My performance texts with Ranters have shifted further away from any semblance of narration, representation of character or structured action; the texts have become increasingly intertextual and dramaturgically open. My later texts with Ranters provide the audience with greater leeway in framing and ‘reading’ the performance. While an actor is trained to deal with the presence of the audience (Stanislavsky 1968, 184), to enable the performance to be unaffected by the presence of others external to the scene, the evolution of my own work with Ranters has been towards a greater awareness and connection with audience, rather than a denial of it. This awareness, especially pronounced since the development of our production St Kilda Tales[2], has also resulted in the dissolution of traditional performance codes such as ‘character’ as a written and enacted construct, theatrical representation, as well as dramatic action/trajectories, conflict, plot, story, linear narrative and conflict.

A major influence on my work was the naturalistic plays of Anton Chekhov, such as The Seagull, with their juxtapositional structures, lateral narrative digressions, and apparent lack of linear action or trajectories. Brecht’s theory of the Verfremdungseffekt was also an influence on the development of my text creation (the absence of the fictional frame) and their staged presentations. Brecht’s productions utilised the theatrical stage as a concrete space; the stage ceased to be representational or articulated as a separate space that denied the presence of the audience. Brecht’s innovative ideas set in motion a process of stripping away theatrical conventions, which was especially rigorous in the sixties and seventies. It was during this intense period of performance experimentation, when theatrical signifiers were being questioned and dissolved, that post-dramatic aesthetics emerged. Concurrent with this development was a sociological analysis focusing on role-playing and the adoption of public personas, as evinced in the work of Erving Goffman. It was also during this time that critical theory, as espoused by philosophers such as Henri Lefebvre, Michel de Certeau, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and Situationist writers such as Guy Debord and Constant, focused on the everyday as a realm of performance. Everyday theatre has now become de rigueur with a number of contemporary companies/practitioners in Australia and Europe, such as Back to Back, Richard Maxwell, Toshiki Okada and Philippe Quesne.

In my own practice with Ranters, the focus on everyday aesthetics and hyperrealist performance writing has blurred the lines between the stage and the audience, the fictive and the real; the texts create the conditions for ontological uncertainty. Theatrical language in my plays/texts has moved from a focus on the spoken text towards a matrix of visual/verbal content. My work acknowledges the influence of digital media and technologies that have brought the audient closer to what is performed. The use of everyday language patterns in my hyperrealist texts, such as nuance concatenation, simultaneity, conversational rhythmic structures, unstable narrative sequences, diegetic fissures, interruptions in dialogue, while dispensing with plot, story and teleological character objectives, invite the audience to construct their own dramaturgy.

In performance, my plays require the performers to reject a conventional approach to rehearsal. The evolution of my everyday aesthetics, the stripping away of conventional performance codes, challenges the actors to create the theatrical conditions that facilitate he/she to react to a live situation, without resorting to conscious techniques or structures, such as narrative trajectory, causal logic, actions/objectives or characterisation. As with everyday interaction, an actor in a Ranters’ performance needs to trust their unconscious response mechanisms in order to engage the work at its optimum level. In order to achieve this, the Ranters’ development and production phase employs a long rehearsal process that allows the performers to free themselves of conscious restraints, within the parameters of what’s required for the production. The director’s role is to create a process that supports the performers to free themselves of performative habits, to engage each other with focused tasks and responses, in order to reveal unmediated action and subtext; the director helps to construct the concept and shape its performative outcome.

The performers in the later Ranters’ productions are required to engage each other as themselves. In the Ranters’ productions of the mid-nineties, such as the Roulette[3] plays, the actors were asked to situate themselves within a conflict scenario within a situational frame. As my writing evolved, the situation, or representational frame, was removed. In the productions since 2001, such as The Wall[4] and Holiday[5], character objectives, which propel the conflict, were also removed. This enabled the actors to present themselves in a relaxed state, as themselves, but via multiple, or hybridised personas. These productions sit between fiction and non-fiction, between a fluid and concrete space. The emphasis in these later plays/texts is less on a constructed dramaturgy. Instead they deliver a fragmented, non-linear sequencing of text that gives the audience a greater responsibility in dramaturgical composition. This dissembling of narrative and dramaturgical structures provides the performers with a clearer platform to focus on the moment-to-moment minutiae of actions that take place between them.

In Ranters’ productions, the fulcrum of performative experience has always revolved around the audience, but our everyday aesthetic has continually evolved towards the audience and performers occupying a shared space, no longer as witnesses, but increasingly as active constituents.  In St Kilda Tales and The Wall, the audience took on the role of the camera; they directed their own gaze, following simultaneous actions according to their own will. As with Eisenstein’s montage sequences ‘when the separate pieces produce, in juxtaposition the synthesis of one’s theme’ (1986, 33), the audience in these productions reconstitutes the manifold aspects of what they witness as performance. In the later productions, such as Holiday and Intimacy[6], the everyday aesthetics are refined and resynthesised; text and actions can be read, understood and appreciated by the audience with a reflective and engaged level of consciousness, which alters their relationship to what they see. The everyday content in the later plays reveals hidden agendas and subtextual content that would otherwise not present itself and remain invisible within the everyday field itself. This same content, recontextualised and manipulated, while suggesting and inspiring new texts and actions, now offers itself as a ‘reading’ with the potential for profound implications for the viewer. It can lead to the audience questioning and challenging the way they are perceived, and following that, creating the conditions to free themselves from self-conscious introspection.

Everyday aesthetics informs all my writing, and prompts me to question the limits of what theatre can be. The sheer diversity and universal scale of everyday activity and interaction invites me to question my practice, to measure and recalibrate my methodology and processes for writing theatre texts/plays in relationship to it. What is experienced as believable, or readable in theatre practice is determined in large measure by our experience of everyday performance in our lives.

Everyday theatre offers modes of contemplation, where ordinary, banal, but sometimes extraordinary, occurrences have the potential to reveal a narrative singularity, a point where the forms of storytelling breakdown and unexpected possibilities are realised. It is within the multiple, diverse plains of everyday theatre, which do not privilege any particular forms of expression or activity, and which can occur with unlimited diversity, where moments of profound revelation are offered to the audience. Events that are volatile or explosive, might sit alongside those that are quiet and inconspicuous. Occasions where the underlying subtext reveals itself might suddenly morph into text where the hidden agendas are nascent, barely emerging, or unformed, or not there at all.

Everyday theatre engages at the optimum level when it permits the conditions for the unconscious to flow freely through the audience, when thought and action become entwined. Everyday theatre offers experience in all its totality, an inexhaustible field of performative interactions between people. The peripatetic observation of the minutiae of daily expression, so often ignored or regarded with indifference, can become an infinite reservoir of raw material. Random conversations between strangers on a train, the obscure gestures people use to greet each other in public places, the way a person might turn away their eyes in embarrassment, or laugh at some obscure recognition, or peer through a shop window or wait for a friend in a bar: these simple meetings and events, which at first sight seem insignificant, mundane, or even abject, can arouse profound curiosity in the mind of the audience. Volatile or serene exchanges can alternately give birth to each other, change their appearance once again or dissolve into nothing. Organised meetings and gatherings between people of like mind can sometimes collapse into unpredictable and spontaneous disorder, sometimes violence.

Rather than ignore the theatrical potential of these events, our engagement as an audience of the everyday elicits and intensifies a need for a theatrical exchange to take place. Every interaction or activity has its own inimitable use of verbal language, its own temperature and colour, its particular rhythms and cadence, a physical, emotional, rational and unconscious expression all its own; it is part of an interactive, ever-changing drama that is in turn recontextualised and reframed by its inclusion as everyday theatre, which in turn unfurls into an ever expanding horizon of meanings and unconscious responses. The new everyday theatre offers the potential for the audience/performer relationship to transform, where both are at once observer and performer in a labyrinthine dance of perpetually moving bodies. The performer/observer in everyday theatre must occupy the empty space that separates them from the plane of the ordinary, and a utopia of transcendent experience. It is within the realm of everyday theatre that perceptions can be released from their confines, where the audience can glimpse the un-nameable.

Raimondo Cortese graduated from VCA School of Drama in 1993. He was a founding member of Ranters Theatre, serving as Artistic Director from 1994 – 2001. Ranters have been regularly programmed in international performing arts festivals and venues since 1999, including developments and residencies. He has written over thirty plays and texts for theatre, which have been performed in over a dozen countries, including Features of Blown Youth, Roulette, St Kilda Tales and The Wall. His most recent works are, Holiday, which won a 2007 Green Room Award for Best Australian Writing, The Child for MTC and Intimacy, which premiered at the Malthouse Theatre for the 2010 Melbourne International Festival of the Arts. He was the recipient of a 2010 Australian Leadership Award, and was awarded the inaugural Patrick White Fellowship by the STC in 2011. His most recent work was Buried City, an Urban Theatre Projects, Belvoir St, 2012 Sydney Festival co-production and Murder, for Erth and the 2013 Sydney & Adelaide Festivals and Ten Days on the Island. He has also written for film – The Boy Castaways, television and radio, as well as visual and experimental texts. His fiction includes a collection of short stories – The Indestructible Corpse (Text Publishing 1998). He teaches script writing master classes both here and overseas, and lectures in Master of Writing for Performance in the Theatre Department, VCA School of Performing Arts, Melbourne University.

Michel de Certeau, Steven Rendall trans, 1988, The Practice of Everyday Life, University of California, Berkeley.

Alan Read, 1993, Theatre and Everyday Life, Routledge, London.

Konstantin Stanislavski, Elizabeth Hapgood trans, Stanislavski’s Legacy, 1968, Theatre Art Books, New York.

Sergei Eisenstein, Jay Leyda trans & ed, 1986, The Film Sense, Faber and Faber, London.

[1] Founded in 1992 with director and brother, Adriano Cortese.

[2] Premiered at the Centenary of Federation Festival in Melbourne in 2001, in co-production with Playbox Theatre.

[3] Premiered at La Mama Theatre in Melbourne in 1996; first performed as a whole, Parts 1 & 2 at The 2000 Adelaide Festival.

[4] Premiered at the 2003 Melbourne International Festival of the Arts.

[5] Premiered in 2007 at Arts House, Melbourne.

[6] Premiered at the 2010 Melbourne International Festival of the Arts, in co-production with the Malthouse Theatre.