Features Catherine's Comments Published 2 July 2012

Work in Progress

Why are we so afraid of uncertainty?

Catherine Love

In the spirit of openness, I’ll admit that I’ve spent quite some time head-scratching over the following words. As someone capable of investing my breakfast choice with the same levels of import usually associated with major life decisions, making my mind up about anything halfway significant, like the subject for a column, can be a challenge. But why, in theatre as in life, are we so wary of a little uncertainty?

Uncertainty is often seen as a negative quality in a piece of theatre, courting dirty adjectives such as “unfinished” or “messy”. Yet certainty – genuine, absolute certainty – smacks of risk factors and safe bets, of corporate decision making, of blinkered opinions. Theatre, in its incisive representation and questioning of the world around us, should be anything but certain.

Tim Etchells’ recent speech at the opening of the International Student Drama Festival encouraged this vital strain of uncertainty, advising young theatremakers not to “lock things down too much too early” and referring to the festival as a space for “purposeful playfulness”. It is from this playfulness, this airing of uncertainty and testing of boundaries in the presence of an audience, that extraordinary theatre can be made. As Etchells’ speech also recognised, however, these creative playgrounds are under threat as funding is restricted and artists strive to tick boxes. Box ticking, with all its bureaucratic associations, usually requires certainty, solidity, quantifiables.

It strikes me that there seems to be an element of box ticking to the process by which much work reaches us now, whether that be via Arts Council funding, corporate sponsorship or funded development programmes. One of the concerns raised by the new writing versus new work debate that continues to rumble on is the way in which the notion of the “new writing play” has limited the output of theatres such as the Royal Court and imposed a restrictive, text-based process of development on their emerging writers. For all their merits, such programmes often fail to offer new plays the organic development that can only be gained from exposure to an audience, however naked and unfinished the work might be.

Of course, there are platforms on which artists can present their work in as naked, messy, unfinished and uncertain a state as they like. The Battersea Arts Centre is now widely known for its scratch performances, while the growth of festivals such as Sampled and PULSE has offered similar regional springboards. My worry, however, is that this structure segments audiences cleanly along accepted lines, with an insular crowd of largely theatre industry types getting stuck into work in progress while it’s simply assumed that the average theatregoer is looking for something more slick.

But do audiences always want polish? If we’re running with Hamlet’s definition of theatre as holding up the mirror to nature, then fragility and neuroticism are infinitely more human. While we all secretly enjoy a bit of schadenfreude, this isn’t about watching people make mistakes; at the risk of becoming a self-parody, daring to try something new and risking failure in the process can reveal delicate and unexpected truths. Surely that’s more compelling than clinically choreographed perfection?

As an example, the recent experience of sitting in on rehearsals had me more engrossed for six hours in the mechanics of trial, play and uncertainty – “does this work? could we try this differently?” – than I often am for a comparatively swift ninety minutes in the theatre. Following this experience, it’s fascinating to see that Out of Joint have made the bold decision to open up the rehearsal process for their latest production, with the swift snapping up of tickets to observe these open sessions demonstrating a definite demand for a glimpse of the cogs.

Rehearsals are a delicate process, and I certainly wouldn’t suggest that all productions indiscriminately throw their doors open, but I think we do need to be less afraid of uncertainty and embrace the discoveries that can come hand in hand with imperfection. I’m not yet quite sure how, but then who wants to be sure?

Audience feedback on a postcard please …

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Catherine Love

Catherine is a freelance arts journalist and theatre critic. She writes regularly for titles including The Guardian, The Stage and WhatsOnStage. She is also currently an AHRC funded PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London, pursuing research into the relationship between text and performance in 21st century British theatre.

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