Features Guest Column Published 7 August 2012

Guilty Pleasures

The power of blowing bubbles.

Sam Dunham

We live in a world where there’s an awful lot to worry about. The recession has hit everyone, jobs are hard to come by, people are taking pay cuts and all the while the bills keep coming and the price of goods just keeps going up. And we haven’t even mentioned the banking crisis and the government’s insistence on slashing benefits to within an inch of their life.

It is a challenging environment in which to make theatre that genuinely responds to the needs of its audience. And what do audiences need in days like these? Perhaps it is the kind of intelligent theatre that cuts to the quick current news issues, laying them open for consideration and debate, and indeed the UK is served by a plethora of outstanding companies doing just that, most notably with verbatim productions such as The Riots at the Tricycle, which must be heralded for its lightning fast response to an issue affecting the community it inhabits.

Our intention is not to denigrate the enormous power of shows like these, which is tangible. Another show at by the Tricycle, Half the Picture, a dramatisation of the Scott Arms to Iraq enquiry, was the first to be staged in the Houses of Parliament, with MPs recognising the capacity for theatre to give them a deeper understanding of the issues at the very heart of their dealings. We wouldn’t be theatremakers if we didn’t believe that theatre might just have the power to change the world.

What irks us is the feeling we get that theatre is often viewed in two categories: the heavyweight stuff, the stuff that should be regarded as important, and beneath that another tier of theatre-work that might be treated as disposable. It is this sentiment that prompted Jonathan Jones, in a recent Guardian article, to condemn the Cultural Olympiad, and in particular the Elizabeth Streb dance troupe’s outdoor spectacular at major London landmarks, which even by his own admission was “an eye-catching spectacle: acrobatic, dangerous, elegant”. He writes: “sure, this is ‘culture’. But it isn’t the kind that matters… It has no cultural depth at all”.

We fear our own work may fall far short of Jones’ personal yardstick of “culture that matters”. Dracula: Sex, Sucking and Stardom is a profoundly and shamelessly silly show. We have an Andrew Lloyd Webber-loving Count, more interested in starring in Jesus Christ Superstar than sucking blood. We have dodgy wigs, dodgy accents, and dodgy reinterpretations of pop songs, from Elvis to Michael Buble. Chekov it ain’t.

We have one simple goal, and that is to raise a smile on our audience’s faces. But although ‘Guilty Pleasure Theatre’ is light-hearted, laughter is a subject to be taken seriously. Laughter matters, as enterprises such as Comic Relief have recognised. Would it be going too far to say laughter has the power to shape lives? The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle certainly didn’t think so; for him, it was laughter that marked us apart from other animals and defined us as human beings. Neither did Jo Wilding, a qualified human rights lawyer who, in the darkest days of the war in Iraq, took her troupe of clowns into the lion’s den, working with children affected by the conflict and becoming in the process a witness to some of its worst atrocities, including the siege of Fallujah.

For those seeking evidence that laughter has the ability to cross boundaries and change lives, her book, Send in the Clowns, is crucial reading, an inspirational reminder of the huge power of the arts. She simply summarises her motivations for undertaking what many must have viewed as an absolutely insane and suicidal act. Having initially gone to Iraq as a reporter for the anti-war movement, “the circus came about because I saw how traumatised some of the children were in the hospitals, after the bombing, and how simple things like blowing bubbles could help…” So let’s call this that: an argument for the power of blowing bubbles.

It would be phenomenally crass for us to attempt to draw parallels between Wilding’s project and our own. But what it does teach us is that the light things are important, and in times of uncertainty, more so than ever.

There are other companies occupying similar terrain to us: Spymonkey, Sound & Fury and Gonzo Moose are some of those we hold in high esteem. But there’s not enough of it. So after a hard day at the office, when the weight of the world is on your shoulders, why not allow yourself to enjoy a little Guilty Pleasure Theatre?

After all, when times are tough, what greater expression of the human capacity for survival can there be than laughter, ringing out clear, loud and, most importantly, for its own sake.

Sam Dunham is one of the co-founders of Last Chance Saloon, whose show Dracula: Sex, Sucking and Stardom is at Paradise in the Vault until 27th August.

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Sam Dunham is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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