Brian Logan tells me that when he first took on the role three years ago, a name change was under discussion at the theatre. “We thought if we had ‘People’ there, we had to make it mean something. And ever since, we’ve embarked on an inquiry into what those words mean. Specifically, because it feels like a misnomer.” It’s easy to see why: having “People’s” in your name is often the preserve of tarnished political parties or struggling governments. But at its socialist best, it suggests an ideal of shared ownership and belonging: one that’s at odds with stereotypes of theatre being a minority pursuit for a clued-in few.
Logan explains that “we work to bear in mind that audiences aren’t really interested in formal experimentalism for it’s own sake – or navel-gazing to give it another word. But if people don’t like theatre it’s probably because you don’t like Chekhov, or French windows and people in posh frocks and everything we’re not. So actually, I think that the types of theatre we make are able to re-engage people who are disengaged from theatre. And I see no reason why theatre made in new ways can’t be popular.”
Camden People’s Theatre has a programme saturated with some of the most exciting experimental work in the country, including a few themed festivals through the calendar. September’s Calm Down, Dear brought together feminist work under the banner of David Cameron’s frighteningly misguided put-down to MP Angela Eagle. Logan explains that it was designed to be a “supportive framework” around Louise Orwin’s Pretty/Ugly, where she investigated and inhabited a toxic world of teenage girls on YouTube. As Brian Logan explains, what distinguishes Sprint is not its theme: it’s another chance for the theatre to live up to the “People’s” in its name. “In some ways it’s not that distinct from what happens the rest of the year, but it’s a concentrated shot of it that is very democratic in the way it’s assembled.” An open call goes out, and he and the CPT team scour the entries for “something that excites me and makes me genuinely curious how someone’s going to realise it. If I think that’s really speaking to me about something that’s happening in the world right now, or I’ve never heard anyone conceptualise a theatre piece that does that – these are the kind of things that rise above the herd.”
This super-herd of adventurous work included a 3D printed performance that stumbled on the way (technical issues). But the performances that have stayed on their feet are no less ambitious. Michael Green is the creation, or resurrection, of visual artist Simon Farid. Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps originally used the alias Michael Green to start HowToCorp, a shady “internet marketing forum” that sold advice toolkits to wannabe entrepreneurs. Shapps would rather forget Michael Green, but like Peter Pan’s shadow this alias has gained a life of his own, in a legal twilight where no one owns imaginary people. Thanks to Farid, Michael Green’s brand of pixellated financial wizardry lives on on Facebook, Twitter, and even in a performance during Sprint festival: Don’t Hate The Rich, Be One Of Them by Michael Green.
Adventure 1 by Coney is blurring the same lines between reality and performance. Audiences will trail someone who works in the heart of London’s financial district, surrounded by a cast of inadvertent suited extras: “you’ll need your smartphone and your wits about you,” warns the website blurb. It couldn’t be further from the kind of perceptions of passivity, boredom, or formality associated with a night out at the theatre or at home slogging through Question Time. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less challenging. Brian Logan says: “One of the reasons that I initiated a priority focus on socio-political work – although it’s far from exclusive – is the perception that political work is the preserve of Sir David Hare and the playwright in his garret thrashing out his individual university-educated response to a political problem, whereas being deviser touchy-feely people we deal with intimate personal matters.”
I remember the strangeness of seeing David Hare’s Stuff Happens as a teenager. Here were the unreal figures of American politicians – George Bush, Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell – elevated to the status of scheming Shakespearean kings. Histories aren’t any more objective than history plays, but seeing them artificial under bright airbrushing light emphasised how artificial the words they spoke were. Their shared deception within the play was less horrible in the context of Hare’s own deceptive recreation of real living people.
Caroline Horton’s Islands – a decade later – involved a world with its own language, aesthetic and theology designed specifically to confront a political problem. This was devised theatre that stepped past touchy-feely to skin-crawling, with the overflowing toilets of Shitworld spilling horror onto a stage that turned tax havens from an abstract concept to something nasty, two metres from your shoe.
So how will the theatre makers of Sprint make socio-politics feel immediate and real? They’ve got the benefit of an audience who can see the bloodshot whites of their eyes, for one. Brian Logan says that “I don’t think we get anything now that has a fourth wall. Which is good, because it was rude to go to the theatre and pretend I’m not here. It seems like basic good manners to acknowledge your audience.” He tells the story of his “keynote experience” at an RSC production of Volpone: “this little mouse popped up and started running round the stage and the whole audience were transfixed by it. At the interval an august personage came on stage and said don’t worry, the problem will be dealt with. And you could sense the audience going it’s a shame the mouse isn’t coming back. Then half way through the second act – he’s back! There was practically a cheer! but at not point did any of the performers acknowledge the mouse. They soldiered on with their boring old play in complete denial of the fact we are all watching the mouse. Of course they would have reacted, the original actors – it could have been a gift, the best moment of the night!”
It’s weirdly appropriate that the corrupt and powerful grandees of Ben Jonson’s satire couldn’t even fend off a mouse. As well as being polite, greeting your audience suggests a kind of un-politican-like openness to adventure and honesty: even if it’s one you play with and dismantle as you go along. Matt Wilks and Tom Barnes are two recent international security and terrorism graduates who are making one of the centrepieces of Sprint, The Litvinenko Project. It’s an attempt not to let us pretend that the former spy’s murder by polonium-laced green tea was real life, not James Bond: and that eight years after the newspapers splashed photos of him hairless and weak in a hospital bed, his poisoners haven’t been caught. Tom Barnes tells me that “because we’re being ourselves, there’s a sense of authority: we’ve done all this research.” There’s even a symbolic role to their presence on stage: “we have a line about the fact we were 15-16 when he died, and now we’ve got out own company and are doing it, that’s how long has elapsed, no one remembers it as being 8 years ago. That’s the amplifier of the whole thing.”
Their starting point was “the quaintness and relaxation of a British cup of tea, juxtaposed with the violence of killing someone with a nuclear poison. We know he was teetotal and drank green tea. That was our way of getting the really human stuff you don’t get on the news – he was a husband and father as well, he danced. A lot of the empathy comes from knowing he was a real person.”
They’ll weave their research round Litvinenko’s day, structured by a series of cups of tea. Then, they’ll make a web of yarn, held by the audience, to trace the polonium that poisoned him round London and represent “the aim of the show, if we all take this up and talk about it, it won’t fall apart and be forgotten.” But Tom Barnes is sharper than this woollen gesture might suggest: “I don’t think it was a coincidence that an inquiry into Litvinenko’s death was launched 5 days after MH17 shot down on ukrainian border, that’s the way the world works.”
It’s exciting when theatre acknowledges its own limitations. Part of what made the Royal Court’s exercise in torture-by-lecture 2071 so unsatisfying is that Chris Rapley never demonstrated self-awareness that telling small theatre audiences about climate change in great scientific detail wasn’t going to make the US government push through carbon reforms, or speed up the search for renewable energy. There’s something incredibly powerful about having someone on stage tacitly saying “I don’t know” – not, “I’m a politician and I do know,” not “I’m a playwright and I do know and have expressed it in an elegant tangle for you to unravel.” Some of the best political theatre I’ve seen hasn’t had the answers. Caroline Horton consulted Taxpayers for Justice but didn’t distil their recommendations into bite-size form. Sh!t Theatre looked at the horrors of medical trials, but didn’t come up with a way to fix them.
Brian Logan tells me he’s fascinated by the no-go parts of the city, by the parallel worlds of spies and mobile millions explored by Simon Farid, 2Magpies and Coney. He’s even planning a festival called “whose London is it anyway” based on the changing face of the city in the autumn. Several shows at the festival will look at the CPT’s more immediate surroundings. The Privileged by Jamal Harewood looks at the elephant – or polar bear – in the room of inner city gentrification, the fear or at least conflicted attitudes towards young black men. And Keep You Coins by Nobody Move! is a verbatim performance exploring homelessness. As Logan reminds me “Camden council is responsible for the biggest single displacement of poor people from 200 families in receipt of housing benefit who’ve all been moved to Bognor Regis. Perhaps it’s fair enough. But what do you get left with? Do we want London to have an indigenous population? What is a community?”
The theatre’s “right in the HS2 firing line” too. But when you’re asking big questions about social cleansing and art-washing, it makes the house of cards that is fringe theatre economics seem all the more fragile. Brian Logan hasn’t got all the answers to the tangle of socio-economic questions that come up when you start charging people for theatre. “I agree with the principle that the conditions under which your work is produced is part of your work. The problems we all face as left-wing artists who don’t want to be imprisoned by these systems but inevitably we find ourselves having to work within them. But we’re increasingly having to question ‘Are we happy to see artists come through the theatre and leave out of pocket?'”
Sprint performance Everything I Bought And How It Made Me Feel references some of these issues. Last year, spoken word artist Harry Giles logged his purchases on a tumblr together with photos and words: from 20p to pee to guilt-inducing pub meals to buying therapy, the one thing he couldn’t analyse in prose.
It’s a project that makes you think about the fragility of life as an artist, especially as references to performance seep into the list of supermarket shops: “we’re doing a show / as always i go to show mode / where there’s a vague sense of an expenses budget and getting the show going takes all priority / so food and travel choices don’t matter / only speed and energy and mutual care matter.”
I wondered aloud to Logan about how the financial realities of running a fringe theatre venue sit with his politics. He explains that since the venue started to receive core Arts Council funding, “you can no longer advertise yourself as we somewhat have in the past as a hand-to-mouth, fly-by-night sort of place. Maybe in the past our relationship with artists has been dictated by the fact we can say “Hey, we’re all in the same boat!” We talk about the Show Me Yours conversation initiated by Bryony Kimmings – which felt radical in part because asked to live like a successful person in another industries might, with £75 for nights out and hotels on tour, rather than digs with theatre supporters. The sums of money she lays out are strange to look at in comparison with the balletic manipulations of millions in the City explored by Coney and Simon Farid’s work.
As she writes, “Someone else blog for the emergents, poor fuckers.” Logan imagines putting up Sprint’s artists, to create a temporary community: the capacious Battersea Arts Centre stuffs its crumbling corners with resident theatre companies, and Buzzcut festival has a campsite in Glasgow. It’s a fantasy, not least because 40-odd companies will cross the CPT’s door over the course of Sprint festival. “We’re starting with offering a critic the opportunity to hang out, in future we hope to give the same opportunities to artists.”
I won’t be able to literally see everything. Even Logan can’t. “We divvy the festival up but there’s this feeling of ‘What if I miss this year’s gems?’ Hopefully they’ll all be gems. A veritable treasure trove. And even if it isn’t, we hope to always say it’s worth being there. Even it’s a failed experiment, it’ll usually be a bold experiment.” And, in a note of market stall pragmatism after all the ambition: “we’re usually programming multiple shows per evening, so if there’s one you don’t like, hopefully one way or another, you won’t be able to leave without seeing something you like.”
Main image: Tara Yarahmadi
Sprint 2015 is at Camden People’s Theatre from 5th to 29th March 2015.