“For a discipline that finds its most persuasive definition in an eternal present tense, the challenge lies in documenting the thing done, that residue that is most easily reduced to the component of the playtext. Theatre resists reproduction…If performance is a step towards disappearance, writing is a step towards preservation.” (Maria Delgado, Other Spanish Theatre, p20)
Delgado’s insight goes straight to the heart of one of the central tensions in British theatre: the opposition between the ontological temporality of performance and the attempt towards permanence that the written text signals. This rift between the intrinsic values of writing and performance fundamentally permeates the ways that theatre is critiqued, historicised and legacised, leading to a stand-off in which liveness and legacy become oppositional values, driven again and again into conflict with one another.
A recent Devoted & Disgruntled event entitled “Can writers and devisers ever work together or should we proceed directly to violence?” playfully captured the latent antagonisms that often seem to exist in the sector. The fault-lines between writing and devising cultures in theatre are frequently unhelpful, and there are compelling arguments for just getting over these methodological differences and cracking on with the work.
The underlying reasons for these fault-lines, however, penetrate right to the core of British theatre and its value systems. Sidestepping these issues means not only getting no closer to understanding why the expectations don’t match up and why collaboration can sometimes be so hard, but also has large and detrimental consequences for practitioners of non-text-centric performance, and ultimately for the richness of our creative culture.
Britain has undeniably produced – and continues to produce – a rich, complex and diverse canon of scripted works, and we owe much to the playwright-centred model which still remains, for better or worse, firmly at the heart of British theatre. However, by automatically and unquestioningly adopting the norms and values of a material system which places the playwright at the apex of the hierarchy, we make it difficult to recognise the breadth and potential of that diverse performance practice which rejects the model of sole authorship and the written word as recording methodology. If we fail to interrogate the ways in which literary biases and conventions still overhang theatre, we also risk failing to appreciate the full potential of the non-literary elements of theatrical performance.
I have to declare a bias here. As Co-Artistic Director of physical devising ensemble tangled feet, I am privileged to work with a number of exceptionally talented people, both performers and non-performers, who all – in the view of my company – co-author work. Because we work in a system where authorship is often assumed to be the work of a sole person, there are a number of problems one runs into when creating devised or collaboratively authored work.
Devised and physical work, lying outside the ‘canon’ of great British writing, is frequently marginalised or infantilised – Michael Billington’s The State Of The Nation provides some juicy examples of this. The legal requirement, before 1968, of performances to have a pre-authorised script means that improvisation-based performance has been legal for a relatively short space of time, a possible factor in the marginalisation of these forms.
The much talked about Three Kingdoms offers a great example of this potential for our theatre systems to grossly overlook the contribution of performers. In that production, the character of the White Bird – the archly camp singing male performer who opens the show and about whom the whole caboodle seems to rotate – didn’t exist in Simon Stephens’ original script. The part was created by director Sebastian Nübling, presumably working pretty collaboratively with the Estonian performer and member of the NO99 ensemble Risto Kübar, who had that particular, very arresting and unique set of performative qualities. So here we have a play ‘by’ Stephens, who I am sure would willingly admit to the labyrinthine challenges and complexities this collaboration threw up, but which contains characters that are not of his invention. In all the many thousands of words written about the work, how many mentioned the name of this pivotal performer and acknowledged his contribution to creating that role?
Truly collaborative devisers – and by that I mean performers as well as directors and dramaturgs – are vastly underrated in our industry, which is still very attached to a star system bent on pinning creative product to recognisable names. The landscape of devised work in this country is dominated by the names of companies, the likes of Forced Entertainment, Complicité and Improbable, not individuals. And although there is a small pool of extremely skilled devisers who often work across collectives and companies, leading to rich cross-fertilisation, the individuals themselves rarely earn a recognisable name or substantial profile, Simon McBurney, Kathryn Hunter and Stephen Berkoff perhaps being the most notable exceptions.