I’m sitting in a café in downtown New York talking about theatre, when I get asked the question that I always get asked and the question that I most dread: ‘What have you seen that’s good recently?’ I pause and I think and yet again nothing immediately comes to mind. My brain is a complete vacuum.
This response always strikes me as strange. I love theatre. I live and breathe it. My first starring role was as Cinderella in a nursery school pantomime – I played the poor agonised pre-transformation Cinderella while some prettier less problematic girl got to wear a nice dress and go to the ball. I wrote my first play at primary school using different coloured pencils to indicate the different characters. At the age of seventeen I finally stopped pretending to my parents and teachers that I was going to become something sensible like a doctor or a vet and from that point onwards I’ve pretty much been wed to my chosen profession for better or for worse. I spend most of my days writing plays, writing about theatre, teaching people about theatre, working for an amazing theatre company, going to the theatre or hanging out with other people who make, teach, write or write about theatre. Theatre is my heroin. I don’t know exactly when or how I got hooked, but most days I like to mainline as much of it as I possibly can. Consequently I am the worst person to ask for a show recommendation.
The problem with heroin is the more you take of it, the more difficult it is to find that high, that elusive original high that you’re always searching to recreate. Most hits are ultimately disappointing. If you ask me about a specific show I saw recently, I’ll probably give you a slightly disgruntled, nit-picky response. It was great but the narrative didn’t quite make sense, the structure didn’t quite work, the ideas were slightly hackneyed, it’s basically the same thing they did last time, it was a great idea but there was a lack of craft in some way in the way that the piece was made. I might have actually quite enjoyed watching the show or actively hated it in a good way (if I’m genuinely not engaged with a show I have an embarrassing tendency to just fall asleep) but I generally leave the theatre feeling a little let down and disappointed.
It’s as if within in a good show, there is always the ghost of the more brilliant show that it could have been with a little more thought, or skill or time for development. As someone who makes theatre, I’m familiar with the inevitable gap between the perfect idea of a show that you hold in your head as you make it and the actual production that you finally produce and an audience finally see. There’s always a compromise. I know how difficult it is to make good theatre, let alone brilliant theatre. But I am still disappointed … and I feel guilty about being disappointed, like when your partner promises to call you and then forgets to call you and even though you know it means nothing and you’ve probably done it to them a thousand times and each time you’ve done it, it was no reflection on how much you love them, you’re still a little sad.
So this time, as I’m sipping my coffee and searching for names of shows that won’t come to mind, I make a decision. I decide to answer honestly. Instead of apologetically throwing in a couple of names of shows that I thought were flawed but sort of interesting, I try to explain the terrible state of theatre ennui that I’ve found myself in. Ah, my friend annouces, I see what the problem is. The problem is that you’re unimpressed. You’re not the only one. And there’s a book for that …
Jordan Tannahill is Canadian playwright who runs a performance venue called Videofag in Toronto’s Kensington Market (think Camden Market crossed with Borough Market re-located to a warren of streets lined with cute shop-fronted terraced houses). His book, Theatre of the Unimpressed, starts with an account of a trip to see a friend of a friend’s ‘remixed’ Shakespearean comedy in a pub theatre that he and a friend (who was the friend of the friend who was involved in the show) attended with the same level of enthusiasm that would accompany a visit to the dentist for a root canal. Escaping at the interval with ‘migranes’, both Tannahill and his friend realised that they had a problem. Despite loving the theatre, they inevitably went to the theatre out of a feeling of obligation and with low expectations. Listening in to other theatregoer’s negative praise as they left after yet another performance unimpressed – ‘Wasn’t bad’, ‘It was good, but it didn’t move me.’, ‘Well, I thought she was strong in it …’ – he began to realise that he was not alone in his conflicted feelings about the theatre.
So Tannahill set himself a mission to diagnose and find a cure for the problem. He set out to consult a hundred people, both haters and lovers of theatre, as to why they did or did not go to the theatre and if they did go to the theatre, what was it about the theatre that moved them. Theatre of the Unimpressed is a series of reflections on these conversations. Tannahill concludes that there are currently two types of theatre: ‘[t]here’s a prevailing theatre that is risk averse and wary of failure, and there’s a dark-horse theatre that’s predicated on risk and failure as the preconditions of a transformative event’. For an audience, the first is the equivalent of an ‘expensive nap’ (literally true in my case) and the second, rarer form, is present, alive and engaging. Echoing the angry young men of the 1950s, what Tannahill is calling for is a ‘vital’ theatre. A living theatre that an audience attends because they ‘want’ to and derive pleasure from the experience, not because they feel they ‘should’, as if theatre was an unpleasant but beneficial moral medicine.
So what are the features of the theatre of the unimpressed? Tannahill identifies four elements of contemporary theatre practices that, for him, are often factors in the production of the unimpressive. The first is a strain of contemporary dramaturgy that seeks to normalise. The kind of dramaturgy that invokes the rules of the well-made play and psychological characterisation as if they were the only way to write a play. As a playwright, I have to say that I have been lucky enough never to encounter this type of dramaturgy. The dramaturgs that I have worked with have usually, instead, sought to discover what the thing is that you want to make and helped you to close the gap between this ideal version of the play and the jumbled mess on the pieces of paper in front of them. I have, however, heard lots of playwrights complain about dramaturgs doing this to their plays so I can only assume that I have been very very lucky in my experiences so far. Tannahill argues that this normalising dramaturgical process squeezes the life blood out of a play and results in the production of supposedly new innovative work that is disappointingly familiar and recognizable.
The second element is a strain of laziness in artists that produces boring plays and, I would argue boring perfomances. Boring plays, Tannahill argues, neglect ‘to prod deeper or try to push through the initial idea or concept’ or as Anthony Neilson describes it in a 2007 Guardian article: ‘I can't tell you how often I've asked an aspiring writer what they're working on, and they reply with something like: "I'm writing a play about racism." On further investigation, you find that this play has no story and they've been stuck on page 10 for the past year; yet they're still hell-bent on writing it. You can be fairly sure the play, should it ever be finished, will conclude that racism is a bad thing’. One of the elements that Tannahill argues will create a more effective and resonant theatre is a greater ‘rigour of thinking’. This isn’t a call for more plays and performances about impenetrable continental philosophy or cultural theory, it’s a call for plays and performances that don’t patronise their audience by offering them obvious answers and ideas in obvious forms but instead really interrogate both their subject matter and the form in which it is conveyed. The play, like Christopher Chen’s Caught that starts from the premise that we all think racism of any form is a bad thing and want to avoid being racist and then explores why, no matter how good your intentions are and no matter what your cultural heritage is, it is almost impossible to avoid getting trapped in a web of cultural stereotypes when dealing with people from different cultural backgrounds.
I would argue that it's not just plays that can be boring in this way. I’ve seen plenty of avant-garde performance, live art, postdramatic theatre etc. which is guilty of exactly same laziness. It takes a single concept or task and repeats that concept for the entire duration of the performance without developing it in any way. There is a world of difference between watching a man attempting to balance a fig on a pin for an hour and watching a man attempting to balance a fig on a pin for an hour and eventually succeeding. And program notes contextualising the former version within the thinking of Derrida or Deleuze or explaining its relation to the logic of late capitalism are not actually going to make the performance itself any more bearable for an audience to endure.
An extension of the boring play or performance problem, I would argue, is the phenomenon of the groundbreaking playwright or company who produce a play or performance that is genuinely innovative but then, like a one-trick pony, continue to reproduce the same trick over and over again in subsequent shows without any real development. It’s basically the same show with different people in different costumes in different spaces. These are the kind of artists who blow your mind the first time you see their work, but with every subsequent performance that you see of theirs the effect diminishes until you’re thoroughly bored with it all. It may be that there is endless first time audience for such work, but if as an artist, your aim is to build and sustain a regular audience for your work, then as any circus performer will tell you, there’s only so many times you can perform a triple somersault before you’re going to have to perfect a quadruple somersault to keep your audience engaged. Every form of theatre or performance that we might accuse of being boring now was once considered vital and ground breaking.
The third element that can lead to the production of a piece of unimpressive theatre is the phenomenon of what Tannahill calls ‘museum theatre’. Museum theatre involves the revival of classical texts and is generated by a tendency within Anglo-American theatre for the director to feel the need to honour the playwright’s vision. Somehow, this desire, always seems to translate itself into to a need to somehow reproduce the ‘original’ production or, more precisely, some institutionalised version of how that play is thought to have always be performed. Instead Tannahill argues for a consideration, not of what the play was in its original conception, but what it says now to its contemporary audience. He also suggests that Anglo-American artists should take a more continental European approach to the classical text, in which the text becomes a conversation between the playwright and its original context and the director and the modern context in which it is being produced.
The final element that Tannahill focuses on is our perception of the kind of theatre that puts bums on seats. It is no surprise, he argues, that artistic directors of large theatres have a tendency to programme work that they perceive to be a safe bet. There is a need to cater for the tastes and desires of the audience. To do anything else would, in the current climate, be economic suicide. The problem is not so much the need to cater for the tastes of theatre audiences but rather our assumptions of what those tastes are. Regular theatre audiences expect some kind of continuity in terms of the shows that they see, but too often our sense of what the audience wants boils down to the idea of well-made plays and familiar versions of the classics. In assuming this, Tannahill argues we are patronising our audiences. We are assuming that they have a preference for the familiar and no scope to be surprised by the new. Audiences are much cleverer and open-minded than we assume them to be. The capacity for audiences to, not only enjoy, but actively seek out more innovative and challenging work has, I feel, certainly been borne out within context of current British theatre by the huge popularity of cutting edge companies, such as Punchdrunk, Complicite and Headlong (the amazing theatre company I work for).
Tannahill argues that artistic directors can programme more dangerously and that taking a risk on your audience may even lead to a revitalisation of that audience both in terms of its numbers and its diversity. He cites the example of Matthew Jocelyn’s revitalisation of Canadian Stage in Toronto. When Jocelyn took over Canadian Stage, he inherited a theatre whose audience were fed with a diet of reliable well-made plays, such as Shirley Valentine and Doubt, which were often programmed to coincide with the launch of their Hollywood film adaptations. Jocelyn decided to switch to a programme consisting of cutting edge Canadian and international new work across a range of performance mediums, including dance, music and opera as well as theatre. Initially, his audience attendance fell by ten percent, but within a few seasons the number had rebounded and the new audience was more diverse in both its make up and its tastes than the previous one. This Tannahill argues shows that audiences are not inherently risk averse, instead ‘they are hungry for new and transformational experiences’.
Reading Tannahill’s book, led me to think about what would be, for me, the features of a theatre of impressed rather than the unimpressed. Like Tannahill, my love of the theatre was born out of a series of experiences of theatre as ‘life-affirming and transcendent’ when I was a teenager. The reason I keep going to the theatre, even when it is at its most unimpressive, is the hope that I might again experience a transcendent moment. I’m addicted to seeking out that elusive theatrical high.
When people ask me to define what it is that I’m looking for in a play or performance, I would say that there are three basic elements that I hope for. The first is an engaging narrative. The kind of narrative that keeps you on the edge of your seat because you’re genuinely not sure where it’s going to go next. I should add here that by narrative I mean something much broader than what people often mean when they talk about narrative. I’m not necessarily referring to the linear causal narrative that dominates our conventional notions of what a story is. By narrative, I mean an attempt by an individual or group to communicate something about their lived experience by structuring it into a form that enables them communicate this something to another individual or group. Narrative can be linear and causal, but it can also be associative, fragmented, networked, circular, schizophrenic and so on.
The second element is an engaging form. A form that illuminates the content. That either fits the content like a glove or stands in a productively discordant relationship to it, or a form that takes a form that you are familiar with and twists it in a new way. Rupert Goold and Ben Powers radical production of Six Characters in Search of an Author for Headlong in 2008 was a play that was stunning in its use of form
Finally, I’m looking for craft and skill. I want to be inspired by the execution of the performance. I want to see a performance in which all the creatives involved are working at the top of their game and performing artistic miracles. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the production has to have ‘high’ production values in the conventional sense. I have seen plenty of well-crafted and skilful low-fi performances in pop up venues – a great example of this was Dan Cranham’s 30 Cecil Street that I saw at Forest Fringe in Edinburgh in 2011.
Plays or performances that fulfil these criteria have what I would call ‘thickness’, a sense of depth. They take their audiences on satisfying mental and emotional journeys to somewhere they didn’t expect. The artists who create them do so with a level of craft and skill that is breath-taking to watch. They are plays and performances that keep turning like a prism to reveal the situation or the central idea or even the medium of performance itself in a new and surprising light. The question of how we could create a theatre that would support artists more effectively to make work of this depth is too difficult and complex a question to address briefly here. But my ideal theatre would be a theatre in which every play or performance met these criteria. This would be my theatre of the impressed.
With thanks to Raphael Martin at Soho Rep for making me acquainted with the theatre of the unimpressed.
Jordan Tannahill's Theatre of the Unimpressed is published by Coach House Books and you can get yourself a copy here.