In a traditional writer-led process, the playwright’s finished or near-finished script precedes any of the performers’ involvement, is used as an arbiter of any consternation or disagreement, and can withstand the replacement of any performer for an equivalent performer. The writing outlasts the performance, and ownership of rights to the performance text belong firmly with the writer.
In contrast, there’s very little legal protection for the makers of performance. Copyright and ownership laws, which have evolved to protect that which already has monetary value, only cover what is written down or recorded and not the slippery and elusive performative moment.
Even in lots of devising processes where a writer is used, many of these same mechanisms of authorship still occur without significant interrogation. The performers may generate large portions of the material, but once these are ‘fixed’ by the writer into a script, authorial rights for that material become the writer’s, with any acknowledgment of the performer’s specific contribution of the work – if it is acknowledged at all – not generally having any legal standing. If the performance is reproduced in the future it is often the case that the performers are replaced and retain no rights to material they have generated.
Anecdotally, this is the cause of some considerable consternation amongst many performers who commonly work in devising processes and who feel that they bring a huge amount of expertise to the creation of work, making judicious and careful judgements in their dramaturgical choices, but that their creative work is then appropriated by the writer.
I’m not claiming that such relationships are deliberately exploitative. Rather, they are habitual and rest on uninterrogated notions of value, but in doing so, they put at stake the value of the performer’s contribution. Perhaps it is often easier to just engage with the British system of crediting work that assumes primacy to the playwright than to attempt to interrogate the complexity of creative credits in collaborative works. However, on an ideological level, by giving in to the structures that expect a writer to be billed prominently as author of a performed work, even if that work is devised, do we conspire in the reduction of the importance of the performer, the performing body and the performance act in those value systems?
I owe an enormous amount to this type of performer/collaborator/co-author. In my practice, without these performers and their ideas, there would be no content. The ‘text’, if there is one, only exists after the collaboration. These multi-stringed artists don’t write plays – they create fully-fledged moments of performance, often on the spot, which are already live and alive, kinaesthetically charged, and which already have a relationship with their spectator at their genesis.
But my reason for wanting to draw attention to the unsung genius of performers who collaboratively author is not just about wanting the contribution of those performers properly acknowledged, although I do. I also wonder what is at stake if we continue to disregard what those performers do. At its deepest level, does a system which fixates on individuals and playtexts also radically undervalue the potentials and possibilities of live performance in all its unfixed, unstable, temporary glory?
In a collaborative process like tangled feet’s, there is never any master text which records and sets the finished work. The consequences of this are significant for two major reasons. Firstly, the performance is owned jointly by the performers who make it, meaning that performances are always a process of remembering, negotiating and discovering; there is no artefact that acts as arbiter of what the performance should be. Secondly, the rejection of the concept of a finished work means that performances always have the potential to develop and adapt in response to new circumstances, audiences, spaces, influences or discoveries, allowing apertures within which the interaction between performers and audience can be calibrated afresh each time. Both of these differences feed into the possibility of a truly democratic act which includes the audience in the co-creation of meaning.
In the process of deprioritising script, there is the potential to develop another means of creating which celebrates ambiguity and remains changeable, malleable, which has space for liveness and responsiveness and which establishes a conversational relationship with its audience. Going further, we should ask if a performance practice which actively sites itself in opposition to traditional authorship and legacy practices, through doing so, engages with the political dimensions of authority – and if so, what are the consequences?