Another work in progress in Sprint’s programme, A Lesson on the Benefits of Being a Troll by Theatre State, attempts what very few pieces consider, especially in development stages: to make the form organically come out of the content. The blurb might try to persuade that this performance is about trolls – malicious invaders of forums and other online communities, rather than the Scandinavian mythical creatures – but by the end it will become obvious just how misleading this assertion is. Instead of investigating them, this show is itself a troll – it starts its conversation with the audience by luring them into a humorous, light and airy discussion on cyber space invaders, but then manages to make that very same audience the performers and avid actors in the debate on arts funding. All in less time than it takes to scroll down a page of encyclopedia dramatica.
This inversion of the more traditional theatre roles, that quite literally places the audience on the stage and provides them with lines to say, is conducted in a trollishly subtle way. This is mostly due to how benign looking Tess Seddon and Cheryl Gallagher are in presenting their superficial research on over 50’s forum trolls. The show starts a bit of a mess- youtube clips and self-help recordings are randomly played, and there doesn’t seem to be much of a devised script. It’s this seeming relaxedness that makes it very easy to get the audience onto the stage, and persuade most of them to read out the lines provided by Seddon and Gallagher. It also takes some time for everyone to realise what’s happened: suddenly we are all taking part in a suitably uninformed and prejudice argument on whether the taxpayers money has any place in the arts. As anyone who’s ever made the unfortunate mistake of reading the comments on an average Guardian article will know – there’s little space for sense on these occasions.
At one point 3 audience members take charge of the show – they kidnap the microphones and a bizarre kind of protest starts taking shape. The spectators seem to have woken up for long enough to demand a different kind of theatre, rather than settling with being calm observers. The problem is this escalation is quite obviously framed; from the moment he steps on stage, there’s little doubt the revolutionary leader will turn out to be a cast member. While he continues to sing and scream forum post slogans, it transpires that this ambitious concept still isn’t completely logic proof. If the intention was to show how these public yet anonymous discussions can easily devour any moderate or well articulated opinion, to the benefit of anyone ready to blaze out sarcastic insults or glue down their caps lock, then more space should have been given to both. Right now the material this performance uses is softcore. A casual look at any comments board on this topic will reveal an abundance of more dangerous hilariousness: ‘Cut until their pips squeak, then cut some more’ and ‘Screw arts funding. Let ’em busk’ being two colourful examples. Equating audience’s influence as a cultural actor, with the trash regularly forked out behind the safety of a computer screen is a potentially condescending syllogism – real life trolls have quieter ways of ensuring their views take over reality, and real life audiences will have to partake in real life campaigns, if they are to make any difference.
It’s safe to say the idea behind this show’s structural subversion – of inviting the audience to take part in saving their theatres – demonstrates social and professional concern. A Lesson… finishes with performers relocating to the audience seats, leaving the ticket holders alone on stage, as if to ask ‘what now?’. Timely as it is, this show is also a sign of a worrying trend of self-reflexive pieces that address the difficulties of maintaining a practice in the current financial climate. It raises a question of a less evident and less blunt toll all the cuts have had on the artistic practice – if the work starts addressing its conditions, does it not lose its autonomy over funders? While the urge to protest in a creative way is understandable, it might just be we all have to contain ourselves, and take to the streets, political stages, campaigns, and (obviously) forums instead.