Features Published 25 February 2015

Keep on Burning

In 2013 the Lyric Hammersmith created The Secret Theatre Company. This weekend marks its Grand Finale. To mark the occasion Exeunt's writers look back at the shows, the critical reception to them, the highs, the lows and the legacy.
Exeunt Staff

Duska Radosavljevic: I have been thinking about ensemble theatre for a few years now and really care about this subject. I wish I had been able to be more involved with this project but of all the Secret Theatre shows I’ve only seen Streetcar and Impossible Acts. So I’d like to start by asking some questions that have been bothering me. Was the secrecy productive? I don’t mean was it effective as a marketing tool, but was it worth trying to engineer interest by keeping the project seemingly behind closed doors? Did it change anything for the better in our theatre-making landscape? It is clear to me that the project had an ambition to challenge the way theatre is made and viewed in the UK, that it was perhaps trying to hold onto the crowd it had reached through Three Kingdoms. It is also clear to me that it has succeeded in stirring up enthusiasm (and look at the box office successes too). I loved the dance sequence in Impossible Acts, but found the show as a whole (which I caught in Edinburgh) a bit underwhelming given the hype. I loved the freshness it gave to Streetcar but found it dramaturgically a bit hollow in this particular production. So my ultimate question is: have we loved Secret Theatre because of what we perceived it to be trying to achieve rather than because of what it has actually been achieving?

Annegret Marten: I would like to talk about Show 5. No, not like that. I haven’t actually seen it and I’m kind of undecided if I should. I mean, I want to because it’s supposedly this sugary joy rush of a devised piece complete with dramaturgical parlour tricks and born out of true collaborative spirit and that’s right up my alley.

But here comes a big but, and maybe it will help understanding the hype Duska mentions a little better, I’ve heard more people wax lyrical about Show 5 than I can count and now I’m worried that the live experience won’t live up to it. Or maybe that’s not even it because I trust these people’s opinion a great deal. So, actually I’m fairly sure it will be great but I do wonder if the Secret Theatre experience of Show 5 will spoil my experience of “not having seen it”. This might sound slightly absurd but I think it’s what at the heart of why the concept is successful. When Show 1 came out I wrote about how I found it pretty unclear how the manifesto defined the term success. ‘We trust failure is as instructive as success’, it says there and that sounds nice in a ‘throwing off the shackles of economical pressure’ sort of way but the fact of the matter is that a venue like the Lyric it needs to be made really clear how that works in commercial and audience engagement terms. I now can see that what I perceived as undefined was due to the whole thing being a process all along. What success is will be defined by what happens along the way. And sometimes that might mean creating a story around a show that can be as exciting (or possible even more exciting) than watching a show itself.

Stewart Pringle: I wouldn’t worry about it, Annegret. I went into Show 5 loaded down with all the hype, having been feeling pretty shaky about the entire Secret Theatre project since the start, and then having seen the crushingly disappointing Show 6 earlier that same day, and about ten minutes in I broke into a massive grin, that occasionally bubbled over into little bits of tears, and then resolved into a sort of skippy, lighter-than-air walk on my way out. I don’t think it demands anything from you as an audience member, and through that, makes you reconsider whether the whole project has just *seemed* to demand more than it really has. Whether it’s all been much cooler, chilleder and simpler than the chitter chatter around it has suggested. And I guess I feel that’s my answer to Duska too – it wasn’t until I really *felt* what they were doing that I thought what I *thought* they were doing was worth a cuss.

Secret Theatre: A Streetcar Named Desire

Secret Theatre: A Streetcar Named Desire

Catherine Love: I want to pick up on and draw together some of the things that have been said about expectations, perceptions and the journey that Secret Theatre has undertaken since its initial launch. The project was sent out into the world with a really appealing sense of bravura and a hugely ambitious set of things that it wanted to challenge, some of which – like the secrecy, to an extent – have actually ended up hampering it. As Sean Holmes said to me, they set out with an attitude of “let’s change everything about British theatre!” and of course that’s not possible, at least not for one eighteen-month project to achieve.

So I think the company invited certain expectations and certain perceptions of what they were trying to achieve, as Duska mentioned. What’s been more interesting, though, is where they’ve gone since and how the ups and downs of that journey might help us to think about certain structures within the British theatre industry. Show 5 (and I’m guilty of contributing to the hype here, but it’s so heart-skippingly brilliant that I can’t apologise for rhapsodising about it) makes an interesting example. It was something that the company could never have envisaged at the start, but the flexibility of the season’s programming allowed it to emerge, and what was produced simply couldn’t have existed without everything – good and bad – that had preceded it.

Returning to Duska’s final point, then, I’m not sure if the question of achievement or success or however you want to frame it is actually the right question to be asking. Secret Theatre feels more like one massive experiment that might end up doing more indirectly over the long term than it has managed to do over the course of its life. I like another thing that Sean said, which is that he sees Secret Theatre in a sort of John the Baptist position, acting as the precursor of major change rather than that change itself.

Lee Anderson: I’m still far too *close* to Secret Theatre to really consider its legacy (or lack thereof) in any fair, rational and objective way. I was fortunate enough to catch all of the productions, bar one (Show 3), and so I have definitely experienced my fair share of highs and lows, ups and downs, triumphs and nadirs. In considering Duska and others thoughts on how the project ‘stirred up enthusiasm and hype’ – and how perhaps that in itself may have obfuscated our responses to the shows themselves – I’d like to turn to Megan Vaughan’s recent blog on this very subject.

Meg uses the analogy of the sports team to trace the nature of that adoration and loyalty. As someone with an allergic reaction to all things sports-orientated, my own feelings are more in line with music and the relationships we forge with our favorite bands. Like those bands, Secret Theatre for me is an evolving, mutable and changeable creative process. Not every album is going to blow you away or change your life, but you believe in the artists involved and what they’re striving for from one moment to the next. Occasionally, they strike gold, and something marvelous happens: a fusion of styles, tones, sounds and genres. For me, one of Secret Theatre’s biggest innovations has been aesthetic in nature: the striving to dissolve the bogus binary between a text-based playwriting culture and devised, non-linguistic, visual culture. It hasn’t always worked (Show 4 and 6 didn’t land for me), but it has been an illuminating journey all the same.

For me, that’s what the ‘instructive failure’ thing is all about. Naturally, there are economic considerations that a venue such as Lyric cannot possibly ignore, but that’s not the definition of success I feel Sean or the company were referring to in the manifesto or measuring themselves by. Secret Theatre was a laboratory of ideas and influences; a public-experiment unfolding in front of our eyes. It didn’t claim to have any answers from the get-go. The right to make mistakes, fuck-up, get it wrong and learn from the cock-ups is paramount to any decent artistic process. Indeed, it’s essential. But in a commercial arena, ‘failure’ is all consuming. Mistakes are impermissible under such circumstances. Whenever Secret Theatre got it wrong (which is all subjective anyway, right?), it was nevertheless illuminating and never dull.

Secret Theatre: Chamber Piece

Secret Theatre: Chamber Piece

Duska: I love that observation about needing to ‘feel’ the project in order for it to make sense, Stewart. I agree there is something in it and really do not want to devalue the emotional investment we as an audience might have found ourselves making into this project.

I need to make a small correction in relation to what I said above: when I asked the question about the achievements of Secret Theatre I didn’t mean to conflate the notion of achievement with the notion of success. (Annegret rather usefully brought the company’s Manifesto into the conversation and this is where the issue of success/failure entered the discussion, which is great — and I’d love to see more dance numbers on the theme of this Manifesto evolving in this choreography Natasha has commissioned). I do subscribe to the idea of a right to fail as an artist’s prerogative.

In fact, Simon Stephens came to talk to my students once and I passionately believe that the most important thing anyone did for those people within their educational life was Simon urging them — much to their horror — to embrace failure as a necessary part of the creative process. Ideally I would like him or someone of his stature to come and say that to those young people every year. I would like artists they admire to set that example. And I would like them to admire the kind of artists who do. (Though unfortunately you’d be surprised to know how many university students start out believing that Wicked or the Lion King is the ultimate definition of a good night out in the theatre). So I fully accept the success/failure tenet of the Manifesto, it goes without saying, and therefore there is no question around it. My question was more to do with our emotional investment and that is where Stewart’s point is really pertinent. And Meg’s and Lee’s too. (I would also go for a band analogy rather than a team analogy because of the somewhat less adversarial nature of loving a band).

So, to rephrase accordingly, do we continue to emotionally invest in our team or our band because of our a priori sense of loyalty or because of the objective value of their achievements? (This is more of a rhetorical iteration now as many including Meg and Lee have already provided their answers to that question, but I just wanted to clarify it).

I also want to add one more point about ensemble theatre which these analogies have reminded me of. I interviewed about 22 contemporary ensembles recently spanning a really broad range from the RSC and Berliner Ensemble on the one hand to performance collectives such as Ontroerend Goed on the other. Some buzzwords used by many of them to describe themselves did indeed include ‘band’ and ‘team’ but also ‘a group of people around a place’, ‘a group of mutually compatible individuals’, ‘home’, ‘family’, ‘community’. I particularly like  ‘community’, not in the sense of the word that had been contaminated by failed left wing ideologies of the 20th century – not in the sense of the word of community being imposed from above – but in the sense we are practicing now by writing this article: a group of people coming together around a shared concern and a shared process.

In theatre, the best manifestations of this community spirit have been around works which have made the audience part of the creative process (whether it means quietly working something out from the comfort of your seat or actually getting up and dancing with the actors because the scene would not otherwise exist, or even, in the best case scenario, staying behind afterwards to discuss it with other members of the audience because you are compelled to do so and they no longer feel like strangers to you). So far the secrecy of Secret Theatre seems to me to have represented a kind of obstacle to the possibility of this community spirit. I did see only two of the shows, and neither has given me a sense of participation even in the most passive sense (I did want to, but could not, work out the dramaturgical reasoning behind the card playing in Streetcar being replaced with the eating of a watermelon). But on reading some of the ongoing responses I did find myself wanting to continue to emotionally invest in this project in the hope of a payoff, and have booked myself to see Secret Theatre Show 1 on its closing day. And I am happy to check in and let you know how it went. :-)

The Secret Theatre company.

The Secret Theatre company.

Stewart: At the risk of stirring up negativity, I’d like to think a little more about Mark Shenton’s tweet, because I think Meg was right in placing it quite centrally to what might be considered the ‘reception problem’ that Secret Theatre has experienced. I actually don’t think Mark’s much in the wrong at all, except in the sense of being a little thoughtless, but it felt like an honest and enthusiastic reaction to a project which hadn’t outlined the proper terms of engagement. It’s been insisted several times that the ‘Secret Theatre’ idea was intended to refer to the hidden-ness of the theatre within a theatre, rather than a concealment of the play titles themselves, but whether or not we buy that, nobody had told Mark not to tell anyone what the show was called. It’s all new territory. But the wave of indignation that sprung up was the first time I became aware of the possibility of Secret Theatre being tribal in its own way.

Meg’s awesome essay on it is mentioned in Honour Bayes latest Fringe Focus column in the same breath as Matt Trueman’s paen to a more commercial kind of fandom for WhatsOnStage . Maybe, as Honour implies, they’re two sides of the same coin. Or maybe it’s more like two sides of a civil war. After all, as Lyn Gardner reiterates in her (super) piece Sean opened the project on the defensive: ‘”My feeling is that Streetcar is going to make people fucking furious. David Hare does what he does; that’s allowed. What you can’t do: Blanche can’t have one fucking arm.” And nobody had actually said that (yet). When Mark got smacked down for pooping the party, I couldn’t help feel like he was sort of getting booted out of it too. Some cats are down with it, some cats aren’t. The rules are invisible to some, blatantly pissing obvious to others. So I guess that’s why I feel like Lee and Meg are both right – it is a bit like a band, and it is a bit like a team – it’s a bit like ‘whose side are you on?’ and it’s a bit like ‘what do you mean you don’t like The Fall??’

They’re not actually things which necessarily work against Duska’s ‘community spirit’ (Not every community has to be all things to all people – after all, who wants to live in a community with people who don’t like The Fall?), but they do work against the idea of inclusivity. And inclusivity, in the best and least apologetic sense imaginable, was what I loved about the best of Secret Theatre.

Dan Hutton: I’d like to pick up on this tribal thing, as it’s something I’ve talked a lot about with people over the last eighteen months with regard to Secret Theatre. A strange (but perhaps predictable) pattern has emerged; those who haven’t really gone for the season have often decried its “tribalism” saying that yes, they might agree with the gesture and blah-blah-blah, but they’re really turned off by people getting so wound-up about it. Well, you know what? I think we need some fucking tribalism now and again. As Trueman has pointed out before, maybe if theatre audiences were a little more like football fans we’d have a healthier, more ‘dynamic’ industry. Let’s extrapolate this to politics. Yes, tribalism can be combative and reductive, but I’d rather have tribalism so I know where each party stands than some middle-of-the-road, one-size-fits-all democracy. The years leading up to 1979 might have been full of political turmoil and industrial upheaval, but at least the parties looked different. And no one can deny those were exciting (if terrifying) years compared to the bland despair we have now. And I know I’d rather have exciting (if terrifying) theatre than that which evokes bland despair. But now my metaphor seems rather to have broken down”¦

Look, my point is that division and debate are good things. Call me a fuddy-duddy Hegelian, but it’s only through thesis and antithesis that we can reach any kind of synthesis. Mainstream British Theatre needs to change. And Secret Theatre felt like a really important stepping stone to something better.

Lee: I want to pick up on Dan and Stewart’s points about the positive and negative elements of ‘tribalism’ with regards to the Secret Theatre project. The debate around Secret Theatre’s approach to inclusivity is an interesting one, because in terms of it’s ensemble model, it’s perhaps one of the most self-aware, outward-looking, diversity-driven example of ‘inclusive’ theatre as it’s just about possible to imagine (without quadrupling the company). Sean and the Lyric placed the diversity question at the core of the company and addressed it explicitly and in the strongest, most forthright terms. For me, the company functions as a kind of microcosm; it’s seeking to encapsulate what should already be the norm in the wider culture. On the other hand, the ‘secretive’ nature of the project (something that, to be fair, is overstated and has ebbed away over time) as well as the ‘team-atmosphere’ that naturally accumulates when you have a company of people making work together over a longish period of time, has created a counter-view of Secret Theatre as something curiously exclusive and weirdly elitist. I don’t subscribe to this view, but it’s something I’ve heard expressed.

It’d be a mistake to overstate the adversarial attitude of the project, but I agree with Dan that change is sometimes only possible with a degree partisanship involved. I think sometimes we confuse ‘inclusivity’ and ‘equality of opportunity’ with ‘everyone liking everything all of the time always’ – which is impossible and really, who’d want it anyway? In other words, it’s better that the borderlines in theatre exist between artistic conviction and aesthetics, instead of, say, gender, class or ethnicity. In terms of the latter, I think Secret Theatre has shown itself to be a wholly inclusive venture and is one to which other companies should be responding.

Exeunt’s response to A Series of Impossible Acts

Exeunt’s Interview with Sean Holmes and Mark Ravenhill


Exeunt Staff is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine



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