When we were little, my mum used to try and get me and my brother to garden: to plant seeds and tend the plants as they grew. IT WAS SO BORING.
But now I’m nearly 40, I get it. I’m older. I understand time better. I understand the action and effect of time better. Suddenly (or, more likely, gradually) I want to train myself into the patience and dedication and practice of gardening.
Theatre is time, in a space, with other people. You can fill it with anything.
There’s a lot of focus on the immediacy of the live moment. Too right. It’s the sensitivity of that liveness which gives the form of theatre such potential. There’s much more talk now of audience as participants in the experience, rather than viewers or receivers of the work. Many more of us think of our practice as making theatre with, rather than for, audiences. There’s so much theatre now that asks its audience to interact physically as well as engage emotionally and intellectually. There’s so much more attention drawn to the here-and-now presence of all of us – performers and audience – together in this moment. The intensity of the live moment is that we’re in it together… And then… and then…
And then, it makes me wonder if the real power of that intensity doesn’t more often make itself clear only much further down the line – days, months, years after the event?
I hate the word ‘participation.’ It’s so utterly banal. I know why we use it – the sheer blankness of the word makes it a usefully grey heading that’s never gonna colour the authentic amazingness of actually feeling connected with or part of something beyond yourself. But if we think about participation as the interaction of personal response with event, then I wonder whether we shouldn’t talk more about what happens later? The aftermath of the immediate experience. What has changed, that stays changed? What remains?
The speed of modern information exchange; the now-ness of social media; the pressure to make your presence known through iteration and reiteration is immense. The ephemerality of theatre, the impossibility of its mass production – the very thing that gives it such potential power – is also what makes it hard to access. [There’s an argument to be had over whether we tend to confuse the notion of rarity (because it can’t be mass produced) with elitism, but that’s a tangent… ] Our reliance on comment and critique as the way in which we memorialize theatre means that we’re reliant on increasingly immediate reflections on the event.
But sometimes you just don’t get the thing that’s in front of you until much later. When I first heard PJ Harvey’s Sheela-Na-Gig, I hated it. I didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t know how to process it. It freaked me out. I hated it. Maybe a year later, I heard Legs on the radio and I couldn’t tear my ears from it. It fascinated me like nothing else I’d ever heard. And now I have to make a leap of imagination to recall my initial aversion to that first PJ Harvey tune I encountered. I could say the same about Mukesh and Lata Mangeshkar. I could say the same about my first glimpse of Forced Entertainment.
Recently, a performance company invited me to write a reflection on a show of theirs from a few years back. The words that recurred, the sensations that remained were not at all what I thought most important at the time (I know this because it prompted me to look back at the notes I’d made around the show at the time it toured.)
This made me think of how, during our long process of making The Bullet And The Bass Trombone, one of the things that most informed our artistic decisions about what mattered most in the piece, came from conversations we had with people who had seen work-in-progress months before. Very often people would misremember the facts of the story, but there was real depth about what people found resonant over the long term. Some of those things were about voice; sometimes about duration; sometimes about how it played alongside the real world. Sometimes these were effects that we’d never recognised ourselves. We took note of what people found meaningful to help us anchor the production – like the base notes of a fragrance, or the key in which the story played.
I like the idea that the live event is not necessarily the end, but the beginning or the middle of a process that the audience can take away as their own. We do this more often with pop music, I think – take it and own it on our terms in relation to our own particular life experience. It’s easier of course, when you can cheaply own and replay the thing itself; but that’s not to say that even if you can’t stick it on your ipod, you can’t make the invitation to an audience, to feel their honest response and own their experience (even if they get a few facts wrong in the remembering.)
In Bob Dylan’s 2015 MusiCares award speech, he talks about his songs as the inevitable fruits of seeds in shape of songs he’s loved, by singers like Big Bill Broonzy and Robert Johnson; planted in his soul and grown into songs like Highway 61 Revisited and A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall. Is that influence an act of participation too?
I couldn’t have predicted it on first encounter, but now, many years on, I can talk about the influence of Franko B’s I Miss You or Ridley Scott’s DVD commentaries on my work as a theatre director. As artists, we’re attuned to our creative processes and the accessibility of digital publishing makes it much easier for us to share those stories. What I’d love to find are more places where audiences, critics, and others reflect on and review theatre from some time ago. If the liveness of theatre is its big deal, then what remains of the experience inside me is more than just an echo – it’s part of the thing itself. It’s under my skin. It’s planted in me. What remains? What grows?
Tanuja Amarasuriya is a director and producer based in Bristol, UK. She is Co-Executive Producer of Theatre Bristol. She collaborates regularly with writer and composer Timothy X Atack under the name Sleepdogs, to make theatre, film, audio and whatever else it takes to share the story right. http://www.sleepdogs.org
Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.