In her new book Theatre-Making, Duška Radosavljević suggests that the mode towards which a lot of British theatre is moving in 2013 is that which allows for room for “co-creation” between audience and performers. It’s been a growing form over the past decade or so, takes many guises, and has reached out to both mainstream and fringe audiences. It is a mainstay of artists like Tim Crouch and Ontroerend Goed among others. Now, after the first two shows of Secret Theatre, it has become clear that Sean Holmes and his ensemble at the Lyric Hammersmith have also chosen to join in with the fun, creating a season of work which, according to Cara Horgan, asks “the audience to put their own interpretation or their own understanding of things on the work they’re seeing. We hope they’re walking away with their own autonomy determining how they understand it and what it is.”
Horgan and the ensemble have just moved into the third week of rehearsals on the third show of the season after opening up with two controversial productions of classic plays. They have been described variously as “startling”, “a compedium of avant garde cliches”, “achingly sexy” and, almost infamously, “the worst kind of perversity”. The opening week caused a number of furores as Show 1 and Show 2 were put in front of an audience and thrown open for debate. Now the twittering has calmed down a little, the ensemble perform in the evening after working on their next show during the day (their next break will be for a short while around Christmas). On a break from rehearsals, Horgan tells me that it’s been exciting talking to audiences and ascertaining the different ways in which the performances can be viewed:
“It’s so interesting chatting to people after shows because everybody’s got very different things to say (it’s been quite divisive so far, especially Show 1) which I think is really great – allowing people to take from it what they will. I wonder whether it’s because humans are creatures of habit or we like comfort and familiarity but a lot of people think that if they’re being directed or encouraged to look at things differently and not necessarily come away with a set idea of what they see, that makes them really uncomfortable and is not very welcomed. But for other people that’s the most exciting thing.”
Ultimately – and this is a mantra which has been repeated a number of times by members of the ensemble – they “just don’t want to be boring” and are “not trying to be provocative for provocative’s sake”. Whether they’ve achieved this in the first two shows is up for debate, but there’s no doubt that they’ve showcased the opinion that you have to be “making the work you want to make”. And, now that they’re a few months into the process they “know each other a bit better already,” which “makes a huge difference because there’s no inhibitions and you already start to know each other’s strengths”.
Horgan talks passionately about the way in which Secret Theatre is already giving her more freedom to play, about “how much more I feel like I’m developing as an actress” and not having to worry about next month’s rent. “It takes away from the “I” a little bit and becomes about the play and the story and the project, rather than ‘Me, me, me, I want my monologue to be really fucking brilliant and you stand downstage so you don’t upstage me because I really want to be remembered in this show because I need to be employed’. That really basic thing where working as a company and as an ensemble you’re working for the work rather than yourself.”
So one of the things this project does is to give the space to play, to focus on the work in hand? “Exactly. And you’re often tied to that ‘Would we actually do this?’ question, and that just isn’t even a factor. Because why do we always have to be working within a world of naturalism for people to be moved and to feel and to think? We don’t. Sometimes it’s the most abstract times in life where something completely unrelated to your thoughts is happening that you will have the most profound thoughts about something else. So I suppose it’s just trying to play with the idea of – or just open up the possibility – of personal interpretation rather than directing everything to being nationalistically interpretation.”
One criticism which has already been directed at Holmes’ season is that it’s unsustainable, that this kind of programming has no long-term viability within normal modes of working (the only reason Secret Theatre came about in the first place is as a result of a year-long redevelopment of the Lyric). When I question whether things can change, Horgan suggests that “It’s about things gradually moving and shifting and changing” rather than out-and-out revolution. “I feel like one thing we think theatre is here is entertainment (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but it isn’t just entertainment. I think theatre can be a place to reflect society or give political views or be a forum for a lot of things that aren’t just people having ‘quite a nice time'”.
This is an idea which, Horgan explains to me, is always in the back of the ensemble’s mind during rehearsals, as they constantly try to push each other and fit pieces of the shows together like a jigsaw puzzle. A central image of Show 1, for example, which involves Billy Seymour tethered to a pole and running around in circles, actually came from an improvisation Horgan did for another moment in the play, whilst the striking metaphor of watermelon as poker chips in Show 2 “seemed to visually do the thing that a messy poker table with chips and dips and shit everywhere would do. It wasn’t that there was necessarily a deep-seated metaphor. It was just something that we tried that visually worked.” It’s through this “screwing up and things failing and failing and failing” that the ensemble find their motifs.
Interestingly, however, Horgan believes that the company still doesn’t have a “signature style” and that they still don’t seem to have “a set methodology”, meaning that they “approach every piece of text for its own problems and its own merits and in its own way”. As rehearsals for Show 3 continue, for example, the ensemble is already looking at the options which the text opens up: “Already we’re looking at how we can start to tell the story differently. It’s an interesting one because it’s really – in a nice way – restricted by the space that it’s in. A lot of the narrative is determined by the fact that they’re restricted to these rooms which is a restriction but a really useful one that we can play against.” True to the spirit of Secret Theatre, I don’t get much more detail than this.
It’s no secret (no pun intended) that this project was greatly inspired by the Lyric’s co-production of Simon Stephens’ Three Kingdoms last year and the possibilities opened up by a more ‘European’ way of working. In preparation for the shows, Horgan went to Munich (to see the work of NO99, who collaborated with the Lyric on the Stephens play) and Berlin to see what their theatre had to offer, which she enjoyed “Not just because of the visual and physical nature of the work but because of the concentration on atmosphere as much as text”. Horgan places this in relief with a dominant style in mainstream British theatre: “Sergo [Vares, one of the other members of the ensemble] and I have been to the theatre here, and I think we make some brilliant theatre in this country, but even though he speaks fluent English I could see how much more difficult it was to take something away from the show because there’s a lot of standing around talking. And I don’t mean to slag that off entirely because we’re so brilliant at that in this country, at getting naturalism really accurate. There’s a place for that, of course. But that shouldn’t be the only thing that theatre is.”