Features Published 15 April 2019

Dialogue: The things that make you fall back in love with theatre

Exeunt writers talk about the shifting emotional landscape of their relationship with theatre, and explore what it's like to fall in, and out, of love. 
Exeunt Staff

‘Fun Home’ at Young Vic. Photo: Marc Brenner

It’s April, and it’s surprisingly cold, and Fun Home STILL hasn’t got the West End transfer it so richly deserves. So what happens when everything feels a bit grey, and you stop feeling passionate about an artform you’ve spent large portions of your adult life waxing lyrical about? And what makes that feeling come back? In this group piece, Exeunt writers talk about the shifting emotional landscape of their relationship with theatre, and explore what it’s like to fall in, and out, of love.

Ava Wong Davies: After Fringe 2018 I definitely had a big slump – despite seeing so much that I loved, it was just total burnout from writing so much in such a short space of time. I thought it would dissipate but the feeling persisted throughout the autumn, coinciding with a big old bout of depression which wasn’t a massively fun time. I did see Dance Nation, which I loved then and love even moreso now, but my reaction to it at the time felt somewhat delayed, like I was loving it through a pane of glass, pressing my hand onto it and trying desperately to feel some warmth through a cool, hard surface. As much as I love to review, and as ridiculously lucky as I am to see as much theatre as I do, I felt progressively more distanced from it that winter. I didn’t book to see anything. The only stuff I was seeing was stuff I was reviewing. Theatre = work for a while, and the balance started to tip dangerously close to theatre = chore, which is something I Never want to feel. I got sent to cover Hayley McGee’s The Ex Boyfriend Yard Sale one evening in late November, and not knowing much about it I sat down in the front row and waited. I feel like every time I sit down to review a show there’s an element of that – the waiting, the hoping that This will be The show, the one which knocks me off my feet and makes me text all my friends frantically in the bar afterwards. That doesn’t happen a lot. It definitely hadn’t happened for a while. But McGee made it happen. It was pure magic. I was vibrating in my seat with joy. It’s funny, because I don’t think I’ve had anything quite like that this year. Not yet anyway. That’s part of the joy of reviewing, I think. That hope.

Maddy Costa: There’s nothing quite like the disillusionment and indeed hatred of theatre that strikes at the Edinburgh festival: seeing five brilliant shows in a day is bad enough (where’s the time to think about them? let alone write about them? or eat? or get dry from the inevitable rain?), but time is too precious there to waste even an hour on one rotten show. This is partly what makes me remember Little Bulb’s Crocosmia with such tenderness. When I saw it in August 2008, I knew nothing about the company (they were still students at University of Kent when they made it), had zero trust for the venue (The Space on the Mile), and went purely because the blurb in the fringe programme mentioned cake, puppets and a vintage record collection, which in any right-minded person would have set alarm bells clanging. Maybe they caught me in a weak moment: I’d missed the 2007 festival by accident, 2008 was my first since becoming a mum, and I was just emerging from a four-year period of not seeing theatre if I could avoid it, because I found so much of it hollow and dishonest. Which is also why I cherish Crocosmia, as an antidote to that distrust, a turning point and reminder of how encompassing theatre can be. It’s a gorgeous, playful, odd, kind piece of work, the story of a family ruptured by death that made me cry, made me want to see everything Little Bulb might go on to make, but most of all, made me glad to be alive.

Alice Saville: A bit that’s stuck with me from Jen Harvie’s incredible podcast interview with Split Britches is the bit where they talk about sustaining a 40-year long relationship, both as a performance duo and as partners. I think I wanted to hear that the romance and excitement was constantly undimmed but then Lois said this beautiful thing; “We had this really good philosophy in the first 10 or 15 years we were together, that we knew we were going to fall in and out of love. But then if you wait, and you’re patient, and you don’t panic, and you don’t blame the other person, it comes back. And still, in little tiny ways, it does come back”. I think sometimes my relationship with theatre can feel a bit like that: you’re putting all this weight and pressure on one artform to sustain and inspire you and contain everything you want to do. And it can’t, always. I have lots of periods where I feel that I don’t love theatre – sometimes just the first awkward five minutes of a performance that hasn’t hit its stride, sometimes whole months. And although often what shakes me out of it is seeing a specific incredible performance that shifts everything, often it’s as much about challenging myself: “If it’s not theatre, what else is it?” And then I remember that every gripe or dissatisfaction I have with theatre is just as true of other industries/artforms (like academia, or the literary world, or contemporary art), and that my feelings towards it will always shift like seasons, and that loving something means resisting it, sometimes, and then waiting.

Ben Kulvichit: I never feel like I stop liking theatre. If anything, I’m always hopelessly in love with theatre – or the potential of it, my Platonic ideal of performance – and there are times when this imaginary perfect show feels particularly far out of reach; when the shows I see keep falling short of the unreasonable demands I make on them. At these times I feel awfully curmudgeonly, especially when Twitter explodes with praise for these same shows. I definitely feel like that at the moment. During these slumps I end up looking through the websites of theatre companies whose work I’ve never seen, or reading reviews and watching trailers of shows from other countries and from long ago, as if they contained clues to what I’m looking for. A trailer can keep the promise that the real thing often can’t – Forced Entertainment’s Emmanuelle Enchanted or Goat Island’s The Lastmaker or Gisele Vienne’s This is how you will disappear are shows of which I can hear echoes, see ghosts and colour in with my imagination. If I ever saw them, I’m sure there would be disappointments, but I think there’s a kind of perfect theatre that exists, in and of itself, in the form of a promise. Most of the time that feels like enough.

Hannah Greenstreet: Piling my various hats of PhD student of contemporary theatre / critic/ playwright on the coat stand of professional identity (yeah I’m not sure about that metaphor either), I realise that the majority of my time is spent either watching theatre or thinking/ talking/ writing about it. To the extent that I’ve had to seek out other, non-theatre-related hobbies, because I’m not sure it’s healthy to have so much of your life focused on one thing. (One of my parents’ favourite questions to ask me is, ‘Hannah, what if you get bored of theatre?’ To which I respond to my journalist mum, ‘that’s like me asking what if you get bored of news’). But there are times when going to theatre can seem like more of a chore, than a treat. I wonder whether, the more theatre you see, the smaller the payoff gets. I find it very difficult to let my brain go enough to have a purely affective response. I worry that I overcomplicate and intellectualise, which obstruct being carried away by a piece of theatre. But I still go back, because I still hope that this time, this time, my theatre-going experience will be transformative, a seed that takes root in the heart and brain and still flowers years later.

I spent this weekend as critic in residence at Alchymy Festival at the North Wall, a small arts centre in Oxford. The festival’s remit is to showcase new work, often at an early stage of development, by emerging creatives. Seeing scratches of shows including Lewis Doherty’s Boar and Ben Kulvichit and Jack Bradfield’s The Guest reminded me of another of Lois Weaver’s wise maxims: the value of making performances out of what you’ve got. Doherty embodies an army of characters from a Lord of the Rings-esque quest movie, using only himself, a stool, and the audience’s imagination. Kulvichit and Bradfield’s work-in-progress also relies heavily on the audience to create imaginary visuals for the story they are telling; old fashioned cameras on tripods stand in for 11-year-old Lino and 74-year-old Lena as they embark on a quest into an absurd, underworld land.

I think festivals always make me more hopeful (if prone to theatrical exhaustion), because they give me a sense of feeling part of something – of theatre as an ecology, with a community of people who make and make sense of theatre together. Dancing with my friends at the end of Hotter and laughing at Doherty’s hilarious character work on Saturday night, I felt re-energised. Like the relief that you feel when your mood lifts and shifts, before you’ve even realised you were down or been able to articulate why.

Frey Kwa Hawking: Working in a theatre for my day job (alongside writing about it and going to see it as much as I can) has made me learn a lot more about the process of buildings as well as companies putting on work: all the tricky competing concerns and the money side of it. When you’re immersed in this world and having the same conversations, endlessly, it seems, about the state of theatre and the pressures on humanities teachers and funding and so on, the sheer pleasure of what theatre can and should be can get sidelined – not exactly forgotten, but overshadowed by the branches of the systems involved in making it happen.

Reading Sarah Ruhl’s 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write was a beautiful reminder of why I and so many others love theatre. “Both restaurants and theatres must offer up living food,” she writes, and you go oh! There it is. It’s that simple. Or when she writes about why umbrellas are so pleasing to watch onstage, bringing us the feeling of being both wet and dry, the fiction of rain brought to us by the real object of the umbrella. “A real thing that creates a world of illusory things.” Her anecdotes, too, of the things her children say and how they help her see things get to the heart of why we still love theatre: connection. Play. Joy.

Tracey Sinclair: It’s 9.30 on a Sunday morning, and I’m checking my phone in bed. “What made you fall back in love with theatre?” the email asks me, and I pause. My first, instinctive reaction, other than to wrap myself back into my sheets, is to wonder, “what makes you think I have?”

I could list, without much thinking, all the reasons I hate theatre. How I fall out of love every time I go online –#TheatreTwitter and its cliques and its spats, where even its outrage so often feels clubby and cosy. I hate it every summer, when London Theatre decamps to a whole different country and pretends not to notice, and the same people who would gleefully mock sunburned expats in Spain grumble about a city they treat like Brigadoon, materialising once a year for their entertainment.

I hate it when I am reminded that it is a world of privilege and money and lying about privilege and money. (It’s not unique to theatre, of course. I work in the law, for goodness sake, but at least lawyers aren’t pretending to be edgy when they are tweeting from the North London flat paid for by their parents).

Sometimes I think of theatre like all those boys I fucked in my unwise youth – the satellite boys, who would fall into my bed when we fell into one another’s orbit, but who could never be more than a distracting thrill, because the forces that pushed us together would always pull us apart. Theatre so often feels to me like a series of one-night stands – some exceptional, some best forgotten, some really fucking disastrous – rather than a marriage. I suppose these days if I am going to drink too much wine and make poor choices, it might as well be with a play.

I look for love, I do. And there are moments when theatre thrills me. Iain Glen’s Macbeth striding across a Glasgow stage like a glorious god of war. Richard III weaving his evil in the Tower of London, the audience guarded by a Beefeater. The Last Ship, Northern Stage – lifting my tear-stained face to see everyone around me crying. The small, sweet pleasure of hearing my accent on stage, in an audience.

There are things I love about theatre. The shows I’ve seen, the opportunities it’s given me, the friends I’ve made (I’m not immune to criticisms of cliqueiness: hi, theatre pals!). But I am constantly aware that as a northern, working class woman, I’ll never quite belong. (A feeling is strengthened as age fast-tracks me to invisibility, since even the most diversity-focused theatre is obsessed with youth.) So perhaps the reason I’ll never love truly theatre is deliberate, the same reason I never let myself love those shining boys of my salad days. Because I decided early: don’t give your love to something that will never love you back.

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Exeunt Staff is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine